What is Forensic Document Examination? Forensic Document Examination (aka FDE, aka Questioned Document Examination) is the forensic science discipline that deals with documents relevant to some dispute between parties, often but not always legal in nature. At other times, there may simply be some question about a document — for example, ‘can the writing on a document be made more visible?’, ‘how was this document made?’, or ‘what happened to my document?’ Many of the latter arise in genealogical research or when dealing with other ‘historical’ documents. A forensic document examiner is trained to address such questions about a suspect (i.e., questioned or disputed) document using a wide variety of processes and methods.
The scope of work is vast primarily because examiners apply a different definition for ‘document’ than the one most people know and use. To an examiner a ‘document’ is any material bearing marks, signs or symbols, whether visible, partially visible or invisible, intended to convey a message or meaning to someone. This encompasses the common definition of a document — a piece of paper with handwriting or printing on it — but extends the basic idea to include many things people would not normally think of as documents. Consider, for example, a price label, a wall with graffiti on it, or writing scratched into wood. All those items are documents that might be contested in a court of law.
The work of a document examiner can be broken into two broad sub-categories within the overall scope. The most common examination type relates to potential authorship of writing. Non-handwriting issues comprise the rest of the work. I personally split the latter area into two more sub-groups; one focusing on questions relating to how a document was produced, and a second addressing occurrences to a document before, during, or after its production.
In some parts of the world, examiners are trained exclusively in one main sub-area and, hence, refer to themselves as “handwriting experts” or “document experts”, as appropriate. In many countries (e.g., all of North America, Australia, the UK, etc.), examiners are normally trained in all aspects of the work though even in those areas there are some examiners, primarily working in the private domain, that do only one type or the other, or who have a specific focus such as ink analysis.
There are many good resources for more information about Forensic Document Examination including the following:
- American Society of Questioned Document Examiners
- American Board of Forensic Document Examiners
- Scientific Working Group for Forensic Document Examination
- US National Institute of Justice QD information page
- US NIST OSAC Subcommittee on Questioned Documents
- European Network of Forensic Science Institutes (Handwriting and Documents are two of the working groups)
- American Board of Forensic Document Examiners — professional certifying body for FDEs