All too often a court is faced with conflicting evidence given by so-called handwriting experts. This scenario is obviously disruptive to the trial, and generally weakens the credibility of this type of evidence.
Assuming that both experts are suitably qualified, honest, and that their evidence is based on established principles and scientific methods, there should, logically, be no disagreement.
Since only one of the opinions is correct, one of the experts has obviously erred.
In this article I will suggest some of the sources of error that can lead to this type of situation.
Paradoxically, in handwriting points of similarity alone do not necessarily prove the identity of the writer, and many errors occur because this is often the criterion used by the expert to support his findings. For example, a forged signature by tracing is bound to contain many similarities. In fingerprinting the identification of seven points of similarity is sufficient to prove beyond all doubt the person's identity; with ballistics even fewer are adequate to prove the identity of the weapon.
Furthermore, and all too often, features identified by the "expert" as similarities fall into the category of class characteristicse. features that are common to many people, and may result from such influences as the writing system learnt, family associations, education, professional or trade training etc.
The features that fall into the category of individual characteristics, i.e. features peculiar to a specific writer, are the only similarities that can be considered as indicative for identification purposes.
Dissimilarities, or, more accurately, natural variations, are bound to occur in everybody's handwriting, and, for an expert bent on finding dissimilarities to prove that the feature is a dissimilarity when in fact it is a natural variation, is yet another source of error.
Only dissimilarities that fall outside the range of the basic model patterns and the variations demonstrated among the acknowledged specimens available as standards, have any value as divergencies for comparison purposes.
In his book "Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents" Ordway Hilton states on pages 161/162:
"Writings of two different persons may be entirely dissimilar, or they may be very much alike, but not identical. Although many writers have certain habits in common, each has developed personal peculiarities that mark his writing. These individualities, many of them in inconspicuous details, distinguish the writing of two persons who write very much alike.
Repeated small differences establish clearly that two specimens are the work of two individuals despite a great number of general similarities. Such problems cause the layman the most concern since similarities may as times seem to outnumber the differences and yet the fundamental, repeated differences are controlling.
Everyone seems to appreciate that two writings are not of the same individual when there are a vast number of differences, but a few fundamental dissimilarities may not seem to lead to so positive conclusion. Nevertheless they do. If two writings are by a single person, then no fundamental differences should exist. Conversely, if there are any basic dissimilarities that cannot be accounted for by a logical commonsense explanation, then the two writings must have been prepared by different writers".
In my view, one of the greatest sources of error arises from the inadequate number of known specimens (standards) available for comparison purposes.
Standards fall into two categories, collected and requested.
Collected standards are writings that appear on documents written in the normal course of events. Bearing in mind the principle of matching like with like, an ideal standard would be a contemporaneous document similar to the questioned document, e.g a disputed signature on a cheque would be best matched with authentic signatures that appear on acknowledged cheques.
Of lesser value for analysis purposes, are the standards requested specifically for comparison purposes, i.e where the writer is asked to write or sign on pieces of paper. There are established methods by which such specimens should be obtained. In any event, these types of standards are of value if they are complemented by collected standards, as differences between the two would suggest that the writer has deliberately tried to modify or disguise his handwriting.
An old trick used to confuse examiners is to introduce self-serving standards, i.e. documents that bear the suspect's writings written in a different or a modified style.
One of the biggest sources of error is the failure to fully investigate the line quality (which includes the smoothness of the line and the pressure pattern), the pen movement, the line direction and the sequence of strokes.
Consideration of the baseline alignment, the spacing between letters and words, the positioning of punctuation marks, the proportional height of the small and tall letters, and the depth of the lower zone letters, are other features that are often not fully investigated by the examiner.
One of the basic principles in handwriting analysis is that a person is unable to produce writings in a form beyond his capability. However, a skilful writer could endeavour to imitate the handwriting of a person with lesser skills, so long as he is mindful not to introduce minute features into the writings that are beyond the victims capability.
As far as I am aware in South Africa, at present, there is no governing body that determines who is an acceptable handwriting expert witness in a Court of Law. Thus anybody who feels that he knows something about handwriting analysis can present himself as a handwriting expert. Refer "S A Law of Evidence " by L H Hoffman & D T Zefferitt (4th Edition) pages 104/106.
Furthermore, there are several primadonnas about, who have spent many years in this field, and who have fixations regarding methods that are not always correct. They will not yield, even at pre-trial hearings, because of false pride and arrogance - even when they know that they have erred.
The profession of forensic questioned document examiner is degraded and treated with contempt in courts of law.
Trials/hearings are prolonged by the unnecessarily extended time taken for this aspect of the overall issue.
To divert attention from the issue the counsel for one of the litigants, usually the one with the weaker case, concentrates on discrediting the witness by the old trick of "playing the man and not the ball".
The inherent danger of this tactic is:
Solid evidence offered is treated with suspicion.
The court's attention is directed away from the substance of the evidence.
The court is either confused, or it uses the conflict in order to conveniently disregard the evidence generally.
A PROPOSED REMEDY:
All suitably qualified "Forensic Questioned Document Examiners" in South Africa who practice the profession on a full-time basis, should be invited to attend an inaugural meeting, convened by the Department of Justice, in order to present their credentials confirming their credibility in this field.
A register of all acknowledged practitioners should be drawn up and administered either by the Department of Justice, or by a Committee appointed by them.
An annual registration fee should be paid by practitioners, and that from these monies an administrative secretary should be appointed.
A code of ethics and conduct should be established and distributed to registered practitioners for approval.
An ombudsman, comprising three registered practitioners, drawn from the registered members on a roster basis, should be appointed to deal with situations where there are conflicting opinions, and the consensus opinion of the ombudsman should be accepted unequivocally by both parties.
The expert accepted by the Ombudsman is the one who will appear in Court to present the consensus opinion.
NOTE:On 14th March 2008 a group of South African forensic document examiners/handwriting experts met in Pretoria to form the ”South African Association of Forensic Document Examiners”. Articles of Association were agreed upon and an executive committee was elected into office.