Signature & Handwriting Analysis
Whether you need proof of the authorship of a signature or handwriting, you require the services of a forensic expert. For court purposes or just for peace of mind, use an expert who will provide the very best form of evidence.
Our experts have experience in civil hearings and criminal trials
Determine whether a signature is genuine and/or identify the author of a document
Layman opinions will not be accepted at court meaning an expert’s opinion will be crucial
Forensic Handwriting Analysis Explained.
1. Why courts require evidence from handwriting experts as opposed to laymen.
The rule of evidence that sets out how only an expert witness can give opinion evidence about a handwriting/signature comparison is based on two considerations:
- The rules of evidence in Australia usually prevent a non-expert person from giving opinion evidence on matters that are considered to be outside of that person’s everyday experience as the opinion may be unreliable.
- The research conducted over the last 20 years into the opinions of handwriting/signature comparison experts versus the opinion of laypersons suggests that experts consistently give more reliable opinions. This does not mean that the experts have been proved to be error-free witnesses but merely more reliable than lay witnesses.
2. The types/categories of Handwriting Analysis experts are typically asked to conduct.
Most enquires regarding signature and handwriting comparisons typically fall into these two categories:
- a disputed signature on a formal document such as a will, financial agreement or contract. In other words, is the signature a forgery?
- handwriting on a document (or any surface which can be written on) where the content of the handwriting is important for proving an issue. In other words, who wrote the handwriting?
A variation on the above is where there is a collection of signatures or handwritings which may be used to prove the likelihood of an issue if it can be shown that one person wrote all of the signatures/handwriting. This is not asking who wrote it but instead, was it all written by only one person?
3. What documents help you to form an opinion in such matters including terminology such as “questioned” and “specimen”.
The methodology of a signature or handwriting comparison depends on the following factors which influence what documents are required to endeavour to form a definite conclusion:
LIKE-to-LIKE: It is usually essential to compare “like to like”, e.g. cursive to cursive, upper case to upper case. It is also normally essential to compare handwriting to handwriting and NOT handwriting to a signature as many writers will depart from the normal letter designs of their handwriting to write their signatures.
CONTEMPORANEOUS: It is best to compare handwriting written at approximately the same date, as handwriting can change over time or due to injury.
SPECIMEN: A signature or piece of handwriting written by an unknown author is described as “questioned”. It is compared against the usual or “specimen” signatures or handwriting of a known writer. A sufficient quantity of specimen is required for a reasonably conclusive result. It is not possible to precisely advise on this quantity, as it will depend on the skill of the writer and the exclusiveness and complexity of their writing. When examining specimen, it is important to have a sufficient quantity of samples that will reveal the usual parameters of natural variation that all writers display in their handwriting, i.e. all writers vary their signatures/handwriting to some degree, some more than others. It is also the case that some writers will use a range of designs or will vary the style or format depending on the circumstances of writing. A strong opinion is prevented where there is a risk that the specimen handwriting supplied in an examination does not necessarily reveal the full range of variation of the writer.
INJURY or ILLNESS: It is important to know the extent of any injury or illness that may affect handwriting when obtaining specimen handwriting or where a suspect is thought to have written questioned handwriting.
COMPLEXITY. What is meant by the expression “complexity” is the relative number of intersections, retraces, multiple pen movements, connections and finer pen movements that characterise more complex handwriting. Signatures or handwriting that are low in complexity are problematic for two reasons:
-firstly, the simple handwriting of one person is more difficult to distinguish from the simple handwriting of another writer because there are fewer individualising features to compare.
-secondly, simple handwriting is relatively easy to copy by a skilled writer without revealing the tell-tale signs of forgery, i.e. tremor, pen lift, low speed, etc. If the complexity is extremely low, and / or there is little questioned handwriting to examine, there is a strong possibility that the questioned handwriting could be copied by almost any writer without the production of the tell-tale signs of forgery. Therefore, if a signature or questioned handwriting is low in complexity, or there is very little of it to compare, it can prevent a definite conclusion irrespective of the other factors that are taken into account in an examination.
In a handwriting comparison, it is not usually possible to produce a definite conclusion based on, for example, a comparison of four questioned words written in upper case even if there are many pages of specimen handwriting. The low number of comparable features in only 4 words and the relative simplicity of uppercase writing (compared to the more complex designs of cursive handwriting, for example) usually prevent a definite opinion in most cases. This is a general example only and there are exceptions to this rule – it may be possible to offer a qualified rather than definite opinion.
4. Is the quality of copies of documents important?
In comparing handwriting and signatures it is always optimal to have original documents with original ink writing but it can be possible to achieve good results with copies. The chance of a definite result is enhanced by high definition copies that, when enlarged, allow the expert to see fine details such as the tapering of an ink stroke or the scrape marks within the borders of an ink stroke. Obviously high definition copies are not always available but it may still be possible to give valuable evidence by examining poor quality copies IF there is sufficient handwriting to form a reliable opinion and the handwriting is sufficiently complex to form a reliable opinion.
In general terms the clarity of copied documents will depend on the observable detail when the image is enlarged.
It is always important to examine originals where there is a risk of “copy and paste” forgery, i.e. where a copy of a forged signature is imaged onto a copy of a genuine document by the forger.
5. What types of opinions you can form after an analysis.
The types of opinion that are provided are based on the methodology an expert uses. The majority of local Government-employed experts use a methodology created in Australia that has 5 levels of opinion, which include two types of definite conclusions (one for a proposition whilst the other is against), two that are not definite but qualified and one that is inconclusive. This is a very general summary as the wording of the definite opinions always includes the specific and strong message that no expert can promise 100% reliability even if he or she is sure of the opinion. Experts cannot offer 100% reliability in an opinion as, by virtue of the description “opinion”, the conclusion includes a subjective process.
The important feature of handwriting and signature comparisons is that the general process can be measured to enable an identification of the likelihood of the chance of error. Many important studies have been conducted to help establish the parameters of such error in handwriting and signature comparisons. Many of these have been conducted in Australia and have involved testing using 5 levels of opinion, hence the preference of many Government experts for opinion terminology that involves 5 levels of opinion.
The types of opinions vary depending on whether a handwriting or signature comparison is conducted. Where a positive conclusion in a signature comparison is made, i.e. “the questioned signature is genuine”, the determination indicates that not only does the questioned signature possess all of the qualities of the specimen signatures but, additionally, it is sufficiently complex so as not to have been written, by accident or forgery, by any person other than the specimen writer. It is a positive conclusion of authorship. Where, however, a conclusion is made to the effect that “the questioned signature is not genuine”, the definite statement indicates that the questioned signature is lacking in the qualities found in the specimen signatures. Such an opinion is almost always qualified by the possibility that the specimen writer could have written the questioned signature but because of the possibility, for example, of deliberate self-disguise, or the influence of ill health or drugs, or the effect of an unusual writing instrument or surface, this authorship is impossible to detect.
6. Why an opinion might be inconclusive.
Inconclusive opinions are usually given where the following circumstances arise:
- insufficient number of specimen samples to assess natural variation,
- insufficient number of questioned samples to allow enough features to be compared.
- insufficient complexity of either specimen or questioned writings meaning that it is impossible to eliminate the possibility of an undetectable forgery.
- low quality copies which do not allow observation of important comparable features.
7. Why a determination as to forgery cannot be made from handwriting evidence alone.
The use of the term “forgery” is problematic. Forgery is normally understood at law as the act of dishonest copying, not honest copying. Copying another person’s signature handwriting on a legal document is, circumstantially, normally a dishonest act. However, a forensic expert opinion as to whether any questioned signature is a “forgery” at law requires an assessment of the writer’s intention, i.e. the proof of an intention to defraud / deceive as opposed to another intention. No expert can determine a fraudulent state of mind from a forensic examination. Hence while the term “forgery” may be heard in a report or court case it is important that an expert never gives the impression he or she can identify a forgery and instead uses terminology that states whether or not a person wrote handwriting or whether or not a signature is genuine.
8. The difference between a preliminary report and an expert report.
A preliminary examination report is often provided first, before a full examination and an expert certificate for court, as it allows a useful cost benefit assessment for a client. The client can decide whether to incur further costs for a full examination after having reviewed the expert’s preliminary opinion.
A preliminary examination is not as thorough as a full examination. Therefore, any opinions expressed in a preliminary report are qualified by a higher chance of error compared to a full examination. In a preliminary report, there is a focus on the likely opinion conclusion and not on the fine detail of an expert certificate for court. Any conclusion in a preliminary report cannot by itself be considered sufficiently reliable to support a formal / informal allegation or charge or proceedings or action of any kind that is to the detriment of an individual.
9. Contextual Bias
A growing number of scientific researchers are critical of experts being given background information that may bias them towards a certain result. The courts hearing expert evidence may well be critical of experts who do not address the need to reduce or remove context bias. Bias may arise where an investigator receives background information regarding the circumstances surrounding the analysis. It could be argued for example that an expert may be susceptible to an opinion that will favour the party proving the payment.
In submitting documents to an expert it is optimal therefore to use a third party or process to filter or remove context bias so that the expert only receives the document/s to be compared without any information as to which opinion will benefit the party proving payment for the opinion.
10. How someone comes to be deemed an expert in handwriting analysis.
In Australia there is no independent educational or legal authority which decides who is deemed to be a handwriting or signature comparison expert. The individual court that is hearing the evidence shall make its own decision based on the expert’s education and experience. Often it may be influenced in terms of how deeply it looks at this issue by the acceptance or rejection of that evidence by the competing parties that are appearing in the matter before the court.
To select an expert for court the optimal criteria includes:
- educational tertiary qualifications that are “discipline-specific” (that is, relevant to the expert skill, e.g. if the qualifications/curriculum do not include the words “forensic document” and “handwriting”/”signature” this may be grounds for caution). Also it is optimal that the qualifications are obtained from an authoritative certified educational institution and, in order to verify this, it is usually more easily done if the institution is Australian.
- acceptance of the expert as a member of a forensic institution, preferably discipline specific and Australian, that filters membership according to education and experience, e.g. the Australasian Society of Forensic Document Examiners Inc.
- the previous unopposed acceptance by Australian courts of an expert witness is always a good sign of reliable experience and authority.
Some of the Forensic Document areas we have been engaged in:
- Threat notes
- Legal documents
- Employment documents
- Educational qualifications
- Questioned signatures
- Crime scene
Why choose Lyonswood for your document or handwriting investigation?
Lyonswood’s lead forensic handwriting expert is the former Commander of the Document Examination Section of the NSW Police Forensic Services Group. He was Commander when this Laboratory successfully earned retention of accreditation as a forensic laboratory with the National Association of Testing Authorities Australia in 2007 and 2010.
He has an impressive quarter-century of experience with the courts, firstly as a Police Prosecutor and then Forensic Document Examination expert.
He was a teacher and author of curriculum in Forensic Document Examination at the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT) from 2009 to 2012.
Qualifications include a post-graduate Diploma in Information Management (UNSW), Diploma in Forensic Investigation (CIT), Diploma in Forensic Document Examination (CIT); as well as fellowship of the Australasian College of Biomedical Scientists and membership of the Australasian Society of Forensic Document Examiners, both of which require peer review for admission.
He has presented at workshops, seminars and conferences including audiences from the Office of the Department of Public Prosecutions and the Sydney University Forensic Medicine and Science Network.
Case 1: Your forensic document examiner was brilliant. We can now obtain what is rightfully ours – our inheritance. People can be so devious when it comes to matters of money. All along we believed that Dad’s signature was a forgery. The evidence that you were able to obtain with respect to Dad’s state of mind around the time he allegedly signed the will was also vital. (Names withheld)
Case 2: The letters that this woman was sending almost destroyed our marriage. The efforts on the part of your investigators are to be commended. The matching up of documentation that you managed to obtain from her proved beyond doubt who it was. I know you won’t tell me, but I still can’t imagine how you obtained these records. I guess that’s a trade secret. I can’t thank you enough. (Name withheld)
Case 3: I had no idea that DNA could be obtained from a document. Your advice that people up to no good generally sweat rang true. Although there were no finger prints on the documents that were good enough to present to the court, the DNA removed from the paper proved that it was my brother who had falsified my fathers signature. (Name withheld)
Case 4: Thank for from us both. We can now rest easy now that this woman’s accusations have been disproved. All these years my husband has paid out child support believing that the boy was his. The DNA you gathered from the tissue he used to blow his nose contains the truth. Who could have known it would be this easy, I feel sorry for the boy as I suspect she knows who the father is but I doubt she will ever tell him. (Name withheld)