Is my Examiner Qualified?

Of all the questions that can be asked about a Forensic Document Examiner, the issue of whether or not they are qualified is undoubtedly the most important of all. I have written about it before so you may wish to review the following:

What is Context and Bias?

Context and bias are important concepts when discussing any type of evidence evaluation. They apply to any and all forms of forensic evidence so some awareness of them is important.

First, evidence always exists within some context, more commonly referred to as a framework (or background), that is specific to the matter at hand. That is just an unavoidable fact which must be acknowledged. Even a purported absence of information is a type of ‘framework’ — it is just an artificial and unrealistic one.1

Framework information can be relevant or irrelevant and, at the same time, either biasing or not biasing to the evaluation process. To clarify the terminology, we can use the Report of the Expert Working Group for Human Factors in Handwriting Examination which discusses all of this at length.[note]Forensic Handwriting Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice Through a Systems Approach. (NSITIR 8282). U.S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology.[/note] That report provides the following definitions pertinent to this discussion:

  • Bias: A systematic pattern of deviation.
  • Cognitive Bias: A systematic pattern of deviation in human judgment.
  • Relevant Information: Information that is pertinent and applicable to the subject, material, or question being considered. The consideration may be broad (i.e., discipline level) or specific (i.e., task level).

Stoel et al provide guidelines that can be used to determine when action should be taken to manage contextual information, based on the presence/absence of a bias effect and relevance/irrelevance of the information being provided.2

The relationships of interest are shown in the following table:

Task-Relevant InformationTask-Irrelevant Information
BiasingKeep information, but take measures.Shield examiner from this information.
Not biasingUse information.Shield, if possible and efficient.  Not strictly necessary to do since it is not biasing.

The above indicates that task-relevant information should be used in the evaluation process. That makes sense since the presence or absence of that information is likely to change the outcome. If the information is not biasing (bottom left cell in the table), then it can be safely provided to the examiner and used. If the information is biasing (or potentially biasing), then it should be used but carefully, and in accordance with some type of Context Information Management (CIM) System. Obviously, if information is irrelevant then the examiner should not be given the information, particularly if it is also biasing (or potentially biasing).3

So, what is a CIM, and how does it work? The approach to this issue will differ for a public laboratory vs. a private examiner. In a public laboratory with plenty of staff there may be an examiner who reviews a case to vet the material and control task-irrelevant information before handing it over to another examiner who handles the actual examination. There may even be a dedicated unit for case receipt and review, one that covers all sections in the lab. A private examiner, on the other hand, cannot do that and can only try to avoid problems by forewarning clients of the potential risk to their case. At the same time, mechanisms like blind peer review can be used in either situation.

Second, as the above indicates, framework information is not something to be avoided at all costs. It often provides information about the perpetrator, the scenario, or the specific alternative proposition that could be key to formulating propositions or using/considering an appropriate population under the main or alternative hypothesis. The real issue is having access to the right information, at the right time. That can be difficult to achieve in some situations.

When working with a private examiner the client is best off waiting to be asked for more information. Initially, provide only the most basic information and do not provide details to the examiner, until asked. That way the examiner has a chance to guide the discussion with a view to minimizing any potential issues while getting the necessary, relevant information.

What can a forensic document examiner do for me?

If you are asking this question, I assume you have some type of ‘document’ that is in dispute or being questioned. The answer to what can be done for you depends upon 1) who you are, and 2) what question(s) you need answered.

who are YOU?

Immediate clients may be police investigators, legal counsel, corporations, or, in select cases, private individuals. Some examiners deal with all of these clients while others have a specific interest area. For example, examiners that work in publicly-funded laboratories often have a relatively restricted mandate of service (i.e., to their own agency or to a particular branch of government bodies/agencies). Examiners working privately will take cases from any most clients.

It is critical to note that no matter who the immediate client might be, the ultimate client is always the court. In fact, the reason forensic document examiners exist is to help the trier-of-fact understand the meaning of evidence taking the form of a questioned document. The examiner’s expertise is needed to inform the trier about what the evidence means in terms of the matter at hand.

This means that my duty is to the court before any other party, including the one paying the bill—even when the matter has not yet, and may never, make it to a trial or hearing. It is often said that you don’t buy an examiner’s opinion; you pay for their time and must live with the results, whatever they may be.

what question(s) do you need answered?

Investigators benefit from FDE advice when it helps them sort out what is likely to have happened in a given situation. Similarly, lawyers who must argue a case before the trier need to understand what the evidence means in terms of their own arguments and those of opposing counsel. The expert examiner can provide guidance, both verbal and written, in the form of an expert opinion.

Examiners will address questions of interest relating to a variety of disputed documents, such as: wills, deeds, medical records, income tax records, time sheets, contracts, loan agreements, election lists, cheques, anonymous letters, and so on.1 Those questions may relate to source attribution, manner of production, occurrences to documents, or other issues.

Examiners will also conduct reviews of casework done by other examiners. Such reviews may take the form of a formal re-evaluation of the evidence or focus on methods used and their application in the case at hand.

In addition, lawyers can benefit from an examiner’s knowledge of specialized literature in the field. Examiners may assist lawyers in preparing meaningful direct examination questions for their own experts or for cross-examination of an opposing expert.

When in doubt, contact me to find out what can be done for you. However, when doing so be careful to avoid providing unnecessary, or potentially biasing, information.

Do you only accept cases from a lawyer?

In general, yes, I only accept a case submissions from a lawyer, solicitor, or barrister.  I will explain why that is done in a minute, but there are a few exceptions to this rule.

I may accept cases from someone other than the above (e.g., usually a party directly or personally involved in the matter) so long as the following conditions apply:

  1. It is NOT a matter before the courts,
  2. It is NOT a matter intended to go before the courts, and
  3. It is NOT a matter with any legal or judicial implications.

Now, this might seem to rule out a lot of things and it does.  The kind of submission I will accept directly from a private citizen (i.e., non-lawyer/non-barrister) are those aimed at genealogical research, personal interest or education, and similar things.  If you aren’t sure about this, please ask and I will clarify.

For most matters a submission must be arranged and executed through a lawyer, solicitor, or barrister. I will, however, consider a contract if struck with some businesses or a government department/agency of well-established reputation.

It is important that the contract for services be formed between a lawyer or law firm (as a representative) and myself because it helps to ensure:

  1. a professional relationship in all matters,
  2. an arms-length arrangement relative to any party with a personal interest in the outcome, and
  3. there is minimal and controlled interaction to avoid introducing biasing information into the process. Please note that, as a potential expert witness, I must do everything possible to minimize any bias that may affect the outcome in casework.

This might seem unnecessary and even problematic, but it really does work to the benefit of all parties. If you have any questions, please let me know.

From whom do you accept cases? Who are your clients?

Cases are accepted from public entities (e.g., police, investigative bodies, government, etc.) as well as from private individuals.  However, clients who are private individuals must be represented by a lawyer, with very few exceptions. 

For all matters that are, or may be, related to some judicial proceedings of a criminal or civil nature, I will accept submissions only through a lawyer or solicitor representing a party. As a rule, I will not deal directly with parties or individuals personally involved in such proceedings. If you do not presently have a lawyer, I suggest you retain the services of one prior to obtaining the services of any forensic document examiner.

This approach is taken to ensure an arms-length relationship with the involved parties.  It is also important to limit exposure to unnecessary, and potentially biasing, information about the situation at play.  To ensure that such information is not provided all potential clients and their representatives must review our submission guidelines before initiating contact with this office.

For non-legal matters, such as genealogical research or similar issues, my services may be engaged directly by anyone or any institution, public or private.

In addition to the above, all service requests are reviewed before acceptance for potential ‘conflict’.  A ‘conflict check’ must be successfully completed prior to any formal engagement of services. 

What is a ‘conflict check’?

A ‘conflict check’ is a term used for a preliminary process of checking to see if there is any conflict of interest present prior to any work agreement being reached with a client. For legal reasons, it is necessary to ensure there is no conflict of interest involved when work is commissioned. This refers to both real/substantive and perceived conflicts.

A commission for work cannot and will not be accepted if there is a real or perceived conflict in any of the following conditions:

  1. Conflict (real, perceived, or potential) with an existing (different) client who has already retained my services (i.e., one from whom I have a signed agreement and paid retainer fee), and
  2. Conflict (real, perceived, or potential) with my work as an employee of the Government of Canada; specifically, the Canada Border Services Agency, but not limited to that agency (i.e., more generally, the interests of the Government of Canada).

In order to conduct a conflict check the client must provide me with the following information:

  1. Your complete contact information,
  2. The file or case caption, in full,
  3. Names of all parties involved, including attorneys and law firms

Once the conflict check has cleared, I will provide my present fee schedule, a complete current CV and an Agreement for Expert Services, if one has been requested.

Please note that receipt of that information and form only indicates there is no conflict at the time of contact. It does not constitute ‘retained’ status. Only after receipt of the signed Agreement and nonrefundable retainer am I considered officially retained, and therefore unavailable to the other side should I be contacted by them.

I (Mr. Ostrum) may not be designated or in any way indicated as a retained expert unless payment of the nonrefundable retainer and a signed Agreement for Expert Services (available upon request) has been received.

Note: “Future” conflicts may develop which preclude the continuation of services. If such an event occurs, the existing contract will be null and void. Fees will be charged for services rendered to date, but any excess payment will be returned should that occur.

How much specimen material is needed?

The answer varies depending on the specific issue being addressed. That is, it depends on whether the issue relates to authorship of handwriting/signature, or something else.

In situations where the question requires only an examination and no comparison against a standard reference, e.g., examination for indentations or detection/decipher of an obliteration, there may be no need for any specimen samples since such work is conducted using only the questioned item. However, if the issue at hand relates to the source or authenticity of a document (or some aspect of the document), then specimen samples are almost always required to conduct a comparative analysis and evaluation.

Precise instructions for obtaining appropriate specimen samples, either ‘collected’ or ‘request’ in nature, are available upon request. The following are some general guidelines for handwriting authorship issues, signature authorship issues, and for other examination types.

AUTHORSHIP of Handwriting:

For authorship issues involving questioned handwriting of an extended nature (meaning writing that is a full sentence in length or more), it is generally beneficial to obtain as much extended specimen writing, of a comparable nature, as possible.1 However, a reasonable minimum for most writers would be three to five repetitions of the same or similar text.2

It is very important to have writing of a type similar to the questioned samples, i.e., cursive to compare to cursive; hand printing to hand printing, block lettering to block lettering, etc.  It is also important to have writing samples with comparable (i.e., similar) textual content; ideally, the same text written multiple times.  As a minimum, the specimen text should include the same letterforms and combinations, if not precisely the same text.

Lastly, specimen samples should be reasonably contemporaneous to the questioned document.

AUTHORSHIP of Signatures:

For authorship issues involving a questioned signature, it would be ideal to obtain at least 15 to 20 exemplar signatures, written on or about the date in questionAs with extended handwriting, it is generally beneficial to have as many samples as possible, with the total number becoming more critical in cases that involve age, illness, or impairment since these factors introduce additional variation into the writing act. 

Ideally, specimen samples should be roughly contemporaneous to the questioned document. Again, this is particularly important in cases involving age, illness, or impairment of any type. 

It is also important that the signature be written in the same name so, for example, signatures written in the name “John Doe” cannot be compared to those written in the name of “Peter Brown”. This can be problematic when a suspect in the matter has a completely different name than the one in question.

Single/isolated questioned signatures can be compared but, depending upon the graphic complexity of the signature, this will likely place significant limitation on the opinion. The goal is to adequately characterize the habits and range of variation possessed by the writer. With fewer samples, the process becomes more uncertain and, ultimately, this would tend to produce a more inconclusive result.

Other examination types:

This includes the examination or sourcing of photocopiers, printers, faxes or typewriting; basically, any device capable of producing a document.

For these examinations, original documents are almost always required.3

It is best to obtain the suspect machine, if possible, along with all related accessories (such as, daisywheels, typeballs, ink cartridges, paper tray, cables, user manuals. When doing so, pay attention to accessories like ink ribbons or cartridges that might have been discarded, but still be present in recycle or trash bins.

When a suspect machine cannot be obtained, then a meaningful examination may be possible using appropriate historical samples produced using the device and obtained from appropriate records. For this approach, as many samples as possible should be acquired, with attention paid to locating items with comparable text (e.g., style, font, letters/numerals), as well as multiple samples, if possible.

It is also important to obtain and include samples of any forms, letter head, paper possibly used to produce the questioned documents.

Other related FAQs:

What is a document?

In today’s society, everyone knows what a document is.

After all, documents are used routinely for all manner of purpose. Documents that most people would recognize include typed, hand-printed, handwritten, or produced using commercial processes. Letters, contracts, newspapers, magazines, and all manner of items are documents. A common definition might be something like:

a paper or set of papers with written or printed information, especially of an official type

Cambridge Dictionary Online

Forensic document examiners, however, apply a broader definition. We define a document as “any material bearing marks, signs, or symbols, whether visible or not, intended to convey a message or meaning to someone.” Clearly, that definition includes all normal documents, but extends it quite a bit.

This means a few things.

First, almost anything can become a document whether or not it was intended to serve as a document in the first place.

Second, a document examiner must be trained to deal with a lot of different instruments, marking materials, and substrates.

Third, a document examiner must be trained to assess a wide variety of events that may affect different types of documents, before, during, or after their initial production.

All in all, it contributes to the complexity of the work of a forensic document examiner.

What purpose do specimen/exemplar samples serve?

In brief, specimen or exemplar materials represent the output or product of a writer or device. When properly obtained, they exemplify the feature set, including the ‘full’ range of variation, possessed by that specific writer or device. They are used to assess ‘within-writer’ (or ‘within-device’) variation, in contrast to ‘between-writer’ (or ‘between-device’) variation in the population of interest.

Related questions:

  • What is a specimen/exemplar?
  • What type of specimen samples do you need?
  • How much specimen material do you need?
  • How is proof of specimen material achieved?

What is hot-tubbing?

Hot tub without people, with water churning.

Hot-tubbing, in this context, is not what the phrase may first bring to mind.

Text for This Block

Where multiple examiners are involved in a case reports will be issued by each person and sometimes those reports will conflict. One way such conflicts can be resolved is commonly called hot-tubbing.

In brief, hot-tubbing is a Court-ordered discussion/debate involving two or more experts, aimed at sorting out critical issues before the forensic evidence is presented to the Court.12 As the Science Manual for Canadian Judges states:

Hot-tubbing originates from Australia, but has since been introduced to countries including Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, the United States, England and Canada. In Canada, the Federal Court Rules, SOR/98-106, were amended in 2010 to permit hot-tubbing of experts at pre-trial and at trial (see sections 52.6, 282.1 and 282.2 of the Federal Court Rules below).

Science Manual for Canadian Judges, page 160.