What to look for in a Forensic Handwriting Examiner

You have a questionable document or signature and need someone with expertise to do a closer examination. It looks like your signature, but you have never signed such a document. You don’t remember the documents having the content on the document you are questioning or ever signing such a document. Suddenly a new will is produced which you did not know existed and your father, mother or other relative didn’t sign like that. The matter is going to be heard in a court of law. Now you need a Forensic Handwriting Examiner (FHE)to examine the document to determine whether you have grounds for questioning the document.

Importantly, you need to make sure that the FHE you appoint is competent. In South Africa, there are two groups of FHE’s. Those who have trained in the South African Police and those who have trained privately. Since there is no standard for training anywhere in the world, there are a number of factors to take into consideration when approaching an FHE. No standard means no qualification or regulatory body overseeing the standard of training. Internationally, there are numerous associations which have striven to regulate the industry. Many of them offer the very important continuous professional development which FHE’s should participate in to keep their skills current and relevant irrespective of how they obtained their training.

Criteria for selecting a Forensic Handwriting Examiner

So what should you know about the FHE you appoint to examine your questioned document?

  1. Does the FHE have training? As mentioned above, there is no standard for training. Training therefore comes in many forms. There are those who have trained at police laboratories, others who have completed courses online and through contact classes and yet others who have completed postgraduate degrees and certificates. The duration of training is usually around 3 years in the case of undergraduate studies and 1 year in the case of postgraduate studies. A handwriting analyst who concentrates on personality assessment (commonly known as a graphologist) is not able to conduct a forensic handwriting examination, unless they also have training in the latter discipline.
  2. Does the FHE have memberships with relevant associations. Most of these associations expect members to either write annual examinations or to obtain credits through various activities. This assists the association and the member to determine that the standard of work is satisfactory or that the member needs to brush up on their skills. Because Forensic Document Examination is an area in forensic science which continues to develop into a complex science since it was first recognised well over a century ago, associations such as the Scientific Association of Forensic Examiners (SAFE), International Association of Document Examiners (IADE), The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (CSFOS) and many others, also offer regular workshops and conferences to provide members with the latest in developments in the discipline of Forensic Document Examination. Lifelong learning in the discipline is encouraged to ensure that members’ skills and knowledge remain relevant. Any FHE who stops learning after completing their training, becomes less relevant as the years go by and new developments keep happening in the industry.
  3. Does the FHE have experience in the examination of documents? How many cases has the FHE conducted? Each case which the FHE examines, requires its own extensive research, which has as a further benefit of broadening knowledge and skills. Any observations in every report which the FHE produces should be underpinned by credible and valid research.
  4. Does the FHE have experience in providing expert testimony? It is not helpful if the FHE does a thorough examination of documents, yet does not present the evidence competently and authoritatively within the very stressful court environment.
  5. Does the FHE keep abreast of the latest research in the field of document examination? Keeping abreast of the latest research requires of the FHE to read current peer reviewed articles, attend conferences and to do research in various specialisation areas in Document Examination, such as medical factors influencing handwriting, digital signatures etc.
  6. Does the FHE follow internationally recognised standards such as set out by the Standard Working Group for Document Examination (SWGDOC) or the SAFE standards which have been recognised by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST).
Forensic Handwriting Examination
Forensic Handwriting Examination

Other factors to consider in the selection of a Forensic Handwriting Examiner

The above have to do with the the skills and expertise of the FHE. However, there are other factors which should be taken into consideration in the appointment of an FHE to examine your questioned documents.

  1. What are the fees to conduct an examination? FHE’s have varying fees structures, but all will charge for the following:
  2. The forensic examination of documents is a time consuming, labour intensive activity requiring the application of specialised skills and the FHE will charge either per hour or a flat rate per type of examination
  3. Travel costs could include travelling to where the original document is housed and/or to the court where the case is heard
  4. Accommodation if the case is to be heard in a different geographical area from where the FHE works
  5. Out of office costs which includes being away from the office resulting in the FHE not being able to attend to other work at the time.
  6. Other costs such as telephone calls, printing and other stationery as per the requirements of the case.

Although it can become an expensive exercise, depending on the complexity of the case, the forensic handwriting examiner could be key in assisting the trier-of-fact, to reach decisions based on thoroughly substantiated, reliable facts.