In forensic science, questioned document examination (QDE) is the examination of documents potentially disputed in a court of law. Its primary purpose is to provide evidence about a suspicious or questionable document using scientific processes and methods. Evidence might include alterations, the chain of possession, damage to the document, forgery, origin, authenticity, or other questions that come up when a document is challenged in court.
Many QD examinations involve a comparison of the questioned document, or components of the document, to a set of known standards. The most common type of examination involves handwriting wherein the examiner tries to address concerns about potential authorship.
A document examiner is often asked to determine if a questioned item originated from the same source as the known item(s), then present their opinion on the matter in court as an expert witness. Other common tasks include determining what has happened to a document, determining when a document was produced, or deciphering information on the document that has been obscured, obliterated, or erased.
The discipline is known by many names including 'forensic document examination', 'document examination', 'diplomatics', 'handwriting examination', or sometimes 'handwriting analysis', although the latter term is not often used as it may be confused with graphology. Likewise a forensic document examiner (FDE) is not to be confused with a graphologist, and vice versa.
Many FDEs receive extensive training in all of the aspects of the discipline. As a result, they are competent to address a wide variety of questions about document evidence. However, this "broad specialization" approach has not been universally adopted.
In some locales, a clear distinction is made between the terms 'forensic document examiner' and a 'forensic handwriting expert/examiner'. In such cases, the former term refers to examiners who focus on non-handwriting examination types while the latter refers to those trained exclusively to do handwriting examinations. Even in places where the more general meaning is common, such as North America or Australia, there are many individuals who have specialized training only in relatively limited areas. As the terminology varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, it is important to clarify the meaning of the title used by any individual professing to be a "forensic document examiner".
A forensic document examiner is intimately linked to the legal system as a forensic scientist. Forensic science is the application of science to address issues under consideration in the legal system. FDEs examine items (documents) that form part of a case that may or may not come before a court of law.
Common criminal charges involved in a document examination case fall into the "white-collar crime" category. These include identity theft, forgery, counterfeiting, fraud, or uttering a forged document. Questioned documents are often important in other contexts simply because documents are used in so many contexts and for so many purposes. For example, a person may commit murder and forge a suicide note. This is an example where a document is produced directly as a fundamental part of a crime. More often a questioned document is simply the by-product of normal day-to-day business or personal activities.
The American Society for Testing and Materials, International (ASTM) publishes standards for many methods and procedures used by FDEs. E30.02 was the ASTM subcomittee for Questioned Documents. These guides were under the jurisdiction of ASTM Committee E30 on Forensic Sciences and the direct responsibility of Subcommittee E30.02 on Questioned Documents. The ASTM Questioned Document Section has been disbanded.
All of the Standards are now available through SWGDOC (The Scientific Working Group for Document Examiners). The Standard Guide for Scope of Work of Forensic Document Examiners indicates there are four components to the work of a forensic document examiner. It states that an examiner "makes scientific examinations, comparisons, and analyses of documents to:
Some FDEs limit their work to the examination and comparison of handwriting; most inspect and examine the whole document in accordance with this ASTM standard.
Documents feature prominently in all manner of business and personal affairs. Almost any type of document may become disputed in an investigation or litigation. For example, a questioned document may be a sheet of paper bearing handwriting or mechanically-produced text such as a ransom note, a forged cheque, or a business contract. It may be material not normally thought of as a 'document'. FDEs define the word "document" in a very broad sense as being any material bearing marks, signs, or symbols intended to convey a message or meaning to someone. This encompasses traditional paper documents but also includes things like graffiti on a wall, stamp impressions on meat products, or covert markings hidden in a written letter, among others.
Although the crimes were committed before the discipline of document examination was firmly established, the letters of the Jack the Ripper case have since been examined in great detail.
A person who desires to enter a career of forensic document examination must possess certain traits and abilities. The ASTM Standard E2388-05 (Standard Guide for Minimum Training Requirements for Forensic Document Examiners) lists several requirements for the "Trainee Candidate".
First and foremost, "an earned baccalaureate degree or equivalent from an accredited college or university" is required as it gives the aspirant a scientific background with which to approach the work in an objective manner, as well as bestowing necessary biological, physical, and chemical knowledge sometimes called upon in the work.
Second, excellent eyesight is required to see fine details that are otherwise inconspicuous. To this end, the aspirant must successfully complete:
Beyond the above, additional desirable skills include knowledge of paper, ink, printing processes, or handwriting.
There are three possible methods of instruction for an aspiring document examiner:
There are some distance learning courses available as well. These are taught through a virtual reality classroom and may include an apprenticeship program, a correspondence course, or both.
A trainee must learn how to present evidence before the court in clear, forceful testimony. Fledgling examiners in the later stages of training can get a glimpse into the legal process as well as a better sense of this aspect of their work through participation in a mock trial or by attending court hearings to observe the testimony of qualified examiners. These are guidelines and not requirements.
Examinations and comparisons conducted by document examiners can be diverse and may involve any of the following:
The concept of 'identification' as it is applied in the forensic sciences is open to discussion and debate. Nonetheless, the traditional approach in the discipline of forensic document examination is best expressed as follows:
"When any two items possess a combination of independent discriminating elements (characteristics) that are similar and/or correspond in their relationships to one another, of such number and significance as to preclude the possibility of their occurrence by pure coincidence, and there are no inexplicable disparities, it may be concluded that they are the same in nature or are related to a common source (the principle of identification)."
The evaluation of such characteristics is now predominantly subjective though efforts to meaningfully quantify this type of information are ongoing. Subjective evaluation does not mean that the results of properly conducted comparisons will be unreliable or inaccurate. To the contrary, scientific testing has shown that professional document examiners (as a group) out-perform lay-people when comparing handwriting or signatures to assess authorship.
However, this type of 'subjective' analysis depends greatly upon the competency of an individual examiner.
It follows that
The examination of handwriting to assess potential authorship proceeds from the above principle of identification by applying it to a comparison of samples of handwritten material. Generally, there are three stages in the process of examination. In brief, they are:
ASTM has published a standard guide for the examination of handwriting titled "E2290-07a: Examination of Handwritten Items". Some of the guides listed under "Other Examinations" apply to forensic handwriting comparisons (e.g., E444 or E1658).
An alternative guide for the examination of handwriting and signatures has been developed by the Forensic Expertise Profiling Laboratory (School of Human Biosciences, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia).
Aside from E2290 mentioned above, many standard guides pertaining to the examination of questioned documents have been published by ASTM International. They include the following:
Not all laboratories or examiners use or follow ASTM guidelines. These are guidelines and not requirements. There are other ASTM guides of a more general nature that apply (e.g., E 1732: Terminology Relating to Forensic Science). Copies of ASTM Standards can be obtained from ASTM International.
Links are provided below
Due to the nature of certification, there are many bodies that provide this service. Most provide certification to individuals from a particular country or geographic area. In some places, the term accreditation may be used instead of certification. Either way, in the present context, it refers to the assessment of an examiner's competency and qualifications by an independent (third-party) organization of professionals.
The Forensic Science Society (UK) provides their members with the opportunity to obtain a Professional Postgraduate Diploma in forensic disciplines, including Questioned Document Examination. The program is accredited by the University of Strathclyde. Successful applicants are entitled to use the postnominal 'FSSocDip'.
Since membership in the FSS (UK) is open to anyone regardless of where they live or work, this is effectively an international certification.
The American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, Inc. (ABFDE) provides third-party certification for professional forensic document examiners from Canada, Mexico, the United States of America as well as Australia and New Zealand.
The Board of Forensic Document Examiners (BFDE) provides certification of forensic document examiners.
The literature relating to questioned document examination is very extensive. Publications in English, French, German, and other languages are readily available. The following is a very brief list of English-language textbooks: