Conflicting evidence of handwriting experts

March 1st, 2018

By Jannie Bester

Experts or so-called experts come in many guises, from handwriting analysts, signature analysts, document analysts, handwriting and signature experts, document experts, graphologists, grapho-analysts, etcetera.

When starting the search for an expert, the choice is in the correct title of the person who needs to be consulted, namely a forensic document examiner.

Forensic document examiners are appropriately trained persons most suitable to assist in disputed document matters. Their skill-set comprises of many disciplines within the forensic document examination field, which includes –

  • scientific examinations;
  • comparison and analyses of documents in order to establish authenticity or non-authenticity;
  • examination of alterations, additions, deletions;
  • individualisation of signatures and handwriting;
  • identifying or eliminating of sources, such as, typewriting, printed matter, stamped impressions, marks, restoration of obscured evidence or relevant document evidence of any kind;
  • writing of reports;
  • professional conduct;
  • the presentation of expert testimony during judicial process; and
  • consultation to aid the users of the examiner’s services in understanding the examiner’s findings.

Forensic document examiners should have a thorough understanding of the concept of bias and how to minimise bias during the term of consultation. Maintaining independence and objectivity are two critical personal traits of a forensic document examiner.

A forensic document examiner should also have a thorough understanding of the concepts of identification and individualisation, which are two very diverse concepts in the understanding and application process during the forensic examination of written and printed sources.

It is common cause that a forensic document examiner operates in two paradigms, namely objective interpretation and subjective interpretation of technical evidence. When dealing with scientific matters, such as ink spectral analysis, restoration of obscured writing, printed matter identification, paper analysis, alterations and additions, the interpretation of the technical evidence is glaringly objective and the results are clear to the reasonable man. However, when dealing with the individualisation of signatures and handwriting, the interpretation of the technical evidence, at best, is subjective in nature and is based on appropriate training, specialised knowledge, experience, continuous mentorship and own ongoing research augmented by membership of recognised professional bodies and discussion forums. A forensic document examiner would most probably have completed approximately 900 hours of training on the aspects of handwriting and signature individualisation alone.

A forensic document examiner is also guided by best practice examination standards in the form of published international accepted best practice standards.

It is within the signature and handwriting examination results, where the majority of the conflicts appear and this is where the choice of forensic document examiner as consultant is critical to the matter of the client, not discounting any other disputed or questioned document issues.

When looking for a consultant forensic document examiner, an attorney should not just rely on an advertisement in printed media or electronic media. The choice of a forensic document examiner should be a well-informed and researched decision. Proper due diligence should be done before the services of a forensic document examiner is employed. The due diligence should include –

  • confirmation of proper training in the field of forensic document examination;
  • personal interviews with previous clients who made used of the particular forensic document examiner;
  • reading of law reports and judgments;
  • checking of membership of recognised professional organisations;
  • a Professional Code of Conduct; and
  • a proven track record in the field of forensic document examination.

A forensic document examiner, and their specialised skill-set is an extension of the professionalism of the attorney and an invaluable source during preparation for judicial process and proceedings.

For previous articles see:

  • C Greenfield ‘Conflicting evidence of handwriting experts’ 2005 (June) DR 28.
  • Letters ‘Conflicting evidence of handwriting experts’ 2010 (Sept) DR 5.

Jannie Bester MCSFS (UK) is a forensic document examiner in Pretoria.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2018 (March) DR 25.