Questioned document examination

From Academic Kids

Questioned document examination is known by many names including forensic document examination, document examination, diplomatics, handwriting examination, and sometime handwriting analysis, although that name is not considered appropriate since it might be confused with graphology. Likewise a document examiner is not to be confused with a graphologist, and vice versa. The questioned document division of a crime lab is sometimes referred to as "QD" on the TV show CSI.

The task of document examination is to compare a questioned document, using the scientific method, to a series of known standards; personality traits cannot be delineated from handwriting with any accuracy. The document in question may be one of many types as is outlined below, and it is the task of the examiner to determine if questioned item originated from the same source as the known item(s), then present an opinion in court as an expert witness.


Scope of document examination

A document examiner is intimately linked to the legal system as a forensic scientist. The term "forensic" represents the word "legal", thus forensics is the body of science that is concerned with searching for the truth within the legal system.

In Canada, the charges involved in a document examination case might be forgery (includes counterfeiting), fraud, or uttering a forged document.

As such, the document examiner deals with items that form part of a case that may or may not come before a court of law. The many types of possible examinations are as follows:

Historical cases


A person who desires to enter a career of document examination must possess certain traits. First and foremost, excellent eyesight is required in order to see fine details that are otherwise inconspicuous. The aspirant must also pass a form blindness test in order to ensure that the aspirant does not suffer from the condition of being unable to tell apart two similarly-appearing, yet different, items. An honours bachelor of science degree is also typically required, for 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. Additional desirable skills would include knowledge of paper, ink, printing processes, or handwriting.


There are three possible methods of instruction for the aspiring document examiner:

  1. Self-education is the way in which the pioneers of the field began, as there was nobody around to teach them. Unfortunately, there is the danger that the student will follow a stray path, with no direction to steer him or her back on course. That is why this method is generally frowned upon nowadays in favour of the following method.
  2. Apprenticeship has become the widespread manner in which almost all examiners are now taught. In fact, this is the method that is required for proper certification and membership to an established organization.
  3. Ideally, a college or university program could be established in order to systematically train new examiners, but it is currently not plausible since the demand for document examiners is not there to make such a program worthwhile to the institution.

The forensic document examiner undergoing training must learn how to present evidence before the court in clear, forceful testimony. By knowing the workings of the legal system, he or she will be able to avoid unnecessary work due some unforeseen flaw in the examination methodology as is seen by the court. Court appearances are especially beneficial to the fledgling examiner in the later stages of training so as to get a glimpse of the process, and his or her peers, at work.


The process of examination proceeds from the principle of identification and can be expressed as: "Two writings are the product of one person if the similarities, when taken in combination, are sufficiently individual and there are no fundamental differences."

There are three stages in the process of examination:

  1. The questioned and the known items are analyzed and broken down to directly perceptible characteristics.
  2. The characteristics of the questioned item are then compared against the known standard.
  3. Evaluation of the similarities and differences of the compared properties determines which ones are valuable for a conclusion. This depends on the uniqueness and frequency of occurrence in the items.

Tools of the trade

Professional Organizations

  • American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE) - USA
  • American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) - USA
  • Australasian Society of Forensic Document Examiners (ASFDE) - Australia/Asia
  • Canadian Society of Forensic Science (CSFS) - Canada
  • Southwestern Association of Forensic Document Examiners (SWAFDE) - Sourthwest USA
  • Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners (SAFDE) - Southeast USA
  • Forensic Science Society (FSS) - United Kingdom
  • International Association for Identification (IAI)
  • Gesellschaft für Forensische Schriftuntersuchung (GFS) - Frankfurt (Germany)

Board certification

A document examiner may be certified by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, Inc. (ABFDE), which was formed in 1977 with a grant from the US Department of Justice. The ABFDE is the body that carries out certification of document examiners – there is no federal licensing involved. The court recognized the Board as reputable in the case of U.S. v. Buck, 1987, in denying a motion that claimed that handwriting comparisons were unreliable.

The minimum qualifications accepted by the ABFDE for certification are: an honours bachelor’s degree from a recognized institution, a minimum of 2 years full-time training in a recognized document laboratory (usually government) under the supervision of an experienced examiner, two years of additional independent casework, and the full-time practice of forensic document examination.

In order to determine the credibility of the document examiner as an expert witness, since the court most likely does not understand the nuances of scientific work, it must rely on the examiner’s reputation in the profession, and his or her affiliations with credible professional organizations. This is where that ABFDE certification of an examiner shines. The International Association for Identification (IAI) has a similar certifying program.


John J. Harris sat as the inaugural chairman, and in the following year, the Committee of Certification was created. The board states its objectives as “to establish, maintain and enhance standards of qualification for those who practice forensic document examination, and to certify applicants who comply with ABFDE requirements for qualified specialists.”

Backed by the ASQDE, CSFS, and the AAFS, the ABFDE ensures that the applicant satisfies a number of standardized requirements with regular testing to ensure that the examiner performs at the same high level of professionalism, as do the other people in the trade. More-so than merely denoting the attainment of certain academic and minimum standards, board certification indicates that the examiner cares enough about the profession to spend time and effort to adequately prepare himself or herself to properly serve the public.

External links


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