By Chris Anderson


Public confidence in the forensic sciences has waned as a result of a number of sensational criminal cases in Australia and overseas involving forensic evidence. There are questions being asked about the reliability and accuracy of such evidence.

Document examination being a branch of the forensic sciences has not escaped criticism. Perhaps the most sensational case being the "Hitler Diaries" in which two renowned document examiners had their reputation sullied. Ironically it was also document examination that ultimately helped show the diaries to be forgeries.

This paper is presented to show you that document examination can be a useful and reliable tool in the pursuit of justice. It will give you an understanding of its principles the scope and limitations and a ready reference to document examination evidence.


The science of document examination as we now know it today dates back only to around the turn of the century. Its development both in the field and its acceptance by the courts are largely due to the efforts of an American, Albert S Osborn and an Englishman, Wilson R. Harrison. Their texts "Questioned Documents" and "Suspect Documents" are still considered by contemporary document examiners to be the definitive works on the subject.

In the book, "The Law of Disputed and Forged Documents", J. Newton Baker states that "Forgery was practiced from the earliest times in every country where writing was the medium of communication".

Not surprisingly it was a very lucrative business for individuals in high office to profit from forgery. Titus was a skilful forger in his time. Cicero berated Anthony for making profits by counterfeiting handwriting.

Under Roman Law, the Code of Justinian, enacted in 539 AD clearly expresses the rule for the identification and comparison of handwriting:-

"Comparison of handwriting shall only be made in the case of public documents, and in the case of private instruments where the adverse party can use them to his own advantage.

For we entertain hatred for the crime of forgery. We order that experts charged with the comparison of the handwriting of public documents shall be sworn before any private instruments are placed in their hands for this purpose. Wherefore this law, as well the present modification of the same, shall remain in full force, and experts aforesaid shall by all means be sworn."

The early English common law system did not provide for such a liberal approach to the introduction of documents into evidence for the purposes of comparison with a disputed document. In fact, Albert S. Osborn in his book "Questioned Documents" suggests that it was not as a result of design, but as an outgrowth of circumstance and conditions that the English law for many years favoured forgery. The great period of illiteracy in English history promoted an atmosphere of mystique associated with the written word. So much so that for many generations the English law "comparison of hands" was not only illegal but was construed as being highly improper. The law positively asserted that handwriting could not be identified.

This attitude could have been influenced by an early reported case where the comparison of handwriting was admitted into evidence in the trial of Colonel Algeron Sidney. A book which had been found in the accused's closet was offered in evidence as it contained the presumed writing of the accused. This was not proved by the testimony of any witness. Some witnesses testified that it was like some writing that they had seen him write some twenty years earlier. This writing was read to the jury and compared by them. Unfortunately for Sidney the jury found him guilty and he was convicted of treason and executed in 1694. This kind of evidence had never been permitted before in a criminal case.

An Act of Parliament five years after Sidney's execution made his conviction null and void because the disputed writing had been compared with some other handwriting which was not proven to have been written by him and that the mere similitude of handwriting in the two papers shown to the jury without concurrent testimony was not evidence that both were written by the same person. Sidney's luck was really out.

By 1854 the slow and staid British system of justice finally started "getting its act together". The comparison of handwriting was allowed in civil cases. By 1865 all restrictions were lifted to allow for the comparison of handwriting in criminal cases.

From these beginnings the science of document examination developed.


The historical and legal backgrounds that ultimately led to document examination or document evidence being accepted by the courts came about due to the reliability and repetibility of the results obtained by bona-fide practitioners in the examination of documents.

Document examination covers a variety of subjects including:-

The identification of handwriting, signatures, typewriting and printed matter;
Distinguishing forgery from genuineness;
Analysing inks, papers and other substances that are combined into documents;
The detection of additions and substitutions on a document;
The restoration or decipherment of erased and obliterated writing;

The majority of work undertaken by document examiners revolves around the identification of handwriting and signatures. Early document examiners were known as "handwriting experts" as their work centred largely on handwriting and signature examinations. Nowadays document examiners are trained in all facets of document examination. In some overseas countries once an examiner has completed basic training that person may specialise in a particular area, such as typewriting or ink analysis. In Australia and New Zealand there is little specialisation mainly due to the acute shortage of properly trained examiners to examine the current case loads, let alone specialise in a particular area.

It is important to have a basic understanding of what is involved in a signature or handwriting identification and the principles of such identifications.


Principle of Identification

The identification of handwriting is based on the proposition that "people are all alike; people are all different". To be able to make a positive identification of a person, a document examiner must be able to observe the distinguishing individual features which separate one person from all others.

All handwritings are alike. If this were not so we would not be able to read another person's handwriting. All handwriting is different. If this were not so we would not be able to identify the handwriting of close relatives and friends with whom we correspond.

Similarities and Differences
Any two writings in the same language and especially those based on the same writing system, naturally have similarities and when closely examined, two writings by the same person show some natural and inevitable variation in letter form, which must be weighed, measured, noted and accounted for by the expert.

In the identification of handwriting all characteristics of both the questioned and specimen writings must be considered. Basic handwriting habits common to both must agree if all are the work of the same writer. Any single fundamental dissimilarity between two samples of writing is a strong indication of two writers, unless this divergency can be logically accounted for.

Several repeated fundamental dissimilarities establish that two writings are not the work of a single person. Under no circumstances, however can identity be established by one, two or even several unusual characteristics. Rather, if two writings have been produced by one individual, there will be a combination of a sufficient number of similarities without any fundamental dissimilarity so that all chance of accidental co-incidence is excluded.

Class and Individual Characteristics

All the factors which identify handwriting fall into two general and somewhat overlapping groups - class and individual characteristics.

1.Class characteristics are those common to a number of writers and may result from such influences as the writing system studied, family associations, trade training, or foreign education as well as carelessness and haste in execution.

2.Individual characteristics are those which are highly personal or peculiar and unlikely to occur in combination in other instances.

Disguised Handwriting

A disguised handwriting is one in which the person has made a deliberate attempt to remove or modify all or some of his normal writing habits. In the majority of cases all that is achieved is a change in the pictorial appearance of the writing while the distinguishing characteristics are rarely effected. It is the obvious which is altered while the subconscious mannerisms are left as a guide for the document examiner.

It must be realised that it is relatively simple to sufficiently change one's writing habits for one or two words to avoid identification, however the problem of maintaining an effective disguise grows more difficult with each additional word.

Handwriting and Numerals

Handprinting is any disconnected style of writing in which each letter is written separately and includes block capitals and manuscript writing.

The method of identifying handprinting is fundamentally the same as is used for the identification of cursive script, that is the improbability of a number of individual characteristics accidentally coinciding in two writings from different sources.

Questions often arise regarding handprinting used in addressing packages, envelopes, labels and for other purposes such as official forms and applications. Handprinting is also often found in anonymous letters and is employed as a means of hiding the identity of the writer. This style of writing is one of the most frequent disguises used by the anonymous letter writer and is quite effective if no specimen handprinting is available for comparison.

Many investigations of today produce a myriad of evidential numerals. This is especially true of enquires relating to embezzlements, bankruptcies, pay-roll falsifications, purchase and invoice manipulations, income tax evasion, fraudulent cheques and virtually every sort of civil and criminal case situation.

Each writer is identifiable by his numerals in the same general manner and subject to the same conditions as have been previously outlined in respect to the identification of cursive script and handprinting.


"Genuine" and "Legally Genuine Signatures"

Some confusion may be avoided if it is made clear at the outset that the lawyers criteria as to what does or does not constitute a legally genuine signature are not necessarily those of the document examiner when he has to decide whether, in his opinion, a signature is genuine or a forgery.

In view of this distinction the terms "genuine" and "fraudulent" will be applied from the point of view of the document examiner, because he has to base his views entirely on what evidence he can adduce from the documents presented to him for examination.

Classification of Suspect Signatures

In "Suspect Documents" Harrison lists seven general classifications of suspect signatures. These are:-

a) forged signatures where no attempt has been made to make a copy of the genuine signature of the person purporting to sign the document;

b) forged "signatures of fictitious persons";

c) forged signatures which closely resemble the genuine signature since they have been produced by a tracing process;

d) forged signatures which resemble the genuine signature, written freehand to produce what is known as a "simulated forgery";

e) genuine signatures which have been obtained by trickery;

f) genuine signatures which the writers are honestly unwilling to accept as genuine;

g) genuine signatures which have been deliberately written illegibly or in an unusual manner, so as to afford the signatories some plausible grounds for disclaiming them should they deem it expedient.

A very small percentage of signatures in existence are forgeries but since these are generally part of important documents or of papers which carry a monetary value, their detection is an absolute necessity. The qualities of a forgery must be understood before a signature can be accurately identified.

Primary Signs of Forgery

The primary signs of forgery are:-

Written at speed which is markedly slower than the genuine signatures;

Frequent change of the grasp of the pen or pencil;

Blunt line endings and beginnings;

Poor line quality with wavering and tremor of the line;

Retracing and patching;

Stops in places where writing should be free;

Besides the primary signs of forgery it is also worth keeping in mind the following three features of forged signatures:-

Any forgery will, of necessity, exhibit a considerable degree of similarity to the general run of genuine signatures in the more obvious features of letter design;

Some forgeries will resemble at least one genuine signature in almost every detail;

No two genuine signatures of any length are replicas of each other.

If any of the signs of forgery are present in a disputed signature, then the probabilities may be in favour of that signature being a forgery particularly if they genuine signatures show carelessness, inattention to detail freedom and speed, and provided there are no external influences present, such as poor writing material or ill health, which could reasonably account for the divergences in a disputed signature.

Identity of Forger

While it is often possible to express and justify a definite opinion as to whether a signature is genuine or forged, it is rare that the identity of a forger can be established. As forgery involves a double process on the part of the forger by discarding all his own writing habits, and at the same time adopting the unfamiliar characteristics of another persons writing, the forger remains anonymous.

Types of Forgeries

There are two main methods whereby a forgery which bears a close resemblance to a genuine signature may be fabricated.

Simulated forgeries are freehand drawings in imitation of a model signature. There are two basic methods of simulation.

The first and most common method involves the use of an actual model signature in proximity to the document to be forged. The second method of simulation involves the forger's ability to recollect the signature he proposes to imitate and to produce it on the document to be forged without a direct reference to a model.

Traced forgeries are fraudulent signatures which have been executed by actually following the outline of a genuine signature with a writing instrument. Such a signature may be produced with the aid of carbon paper by first tracing a carbon outline and then covering this with a suitable ink stroke. Or the forgery may be traced from an outline made visible by transmitted light.

Sex of Writer

Contrary to common belief, there is no known reliable method of determining the sex of the writer from an examination of the handwriting.

These areas are considered the bread and butter work of the document examiner.


Typewriting Identification and Comparison

There are three main questions asked of document examiners in relation to typewriting. These are:-

1. Were the documents typed on the same typewriter?

2. What make and model of typewriter was used to prepare the documents?

3. When was the typewritten document prepared?

In the first instance the detection of typewriting is frequently possible by distinguishing certain class and individual characteristics. Typewriters tend to wear and become defective with continued use or misuse. Defects are reflected in the typewritten material through misaligned typescript, worn typefaces and other abnormalities visible in the typewriting. These types of defects occur readily in manual typewriters, particularly when inexperienced typists are involved.

Electric typewriters can prove to be a more difficult task to identify as they can operate for years without detectable wear or changes in alignment of the typeface. As the pressure on the keys remains uniform even an inexperienced typist can cause little damage to the typewriter. This does not mean electric typewriters cannot be identified. However document examiners just have to work that much harder to find individual features for identification.

With the advent of the IBM Selectric and other single element typewriters further problems have been created in regards to identification. On Selectric typewriters the typeface are contained on one small ball which is coated with an extremely hard metal and it is interchangeable. Defects in the typeface are rare due to the hardness of the metal and because there is little chance to damage the ball. As a result the typewriter will produce fewer overall individual features in the typewritten material. Hence it becomes more difficult to identify a specific typewriter. Perchance the document examiner does find sufficient individual features for identification, then only the ball has been identified, not the actual typewriter used.

Other single element typewriters which use daisy wheels or dot matrix systems to form the typeface present similar difficulties in identification as discussed for the IBM Selectric typewriters.

Identification of Manufacturer of Typewriter

Identification of the manufacturer and model of a typewriter from an examination of the typewritten material is possible, but difficult with modern typewriters. It is essential to have a complete typewriter reference file of all known typewriter manufacturers.

The style of the questioned typewriting is compared with the reference files and it is possible to make an identification of a particular manufacture and model. However, it is more likely that the document examiner will only be able to limit the number of manufacturers and typestyles that could have been used. This occurs as many of the same popular styles of type are available from several manufacturers and are difficult to distinguish. Also, typeface manufacturers sell interchangeable typefaces to many different typewriter manufacturers.

Identification of Altered Typewritten Documents

Document examiners are asked to examine documents suspected of being changed or altered. A paragraph or sentence or even a word could have been added, deleted or erased.

In considering these problems a document examiner will use a template or grid which has accurately drawn lines on them that can detect minute changes in horizontal or vertical alignment. It is difficult to re-insert a document and re-align the vertical and horizontal spacing accurately.

If more than one type design, typewriter or type of ribbon is detected on the one document, it is a strong indication of an alteration to the questioned document.


There are three common types of erasures. These being chemical, abrasive and typewriter erasure using a lift-off ribbon. These types of erasures can usually be detected.

Chemical erasures are detected by conducting an ultra-violet (UV) examination of the questioned document. Bleaching agents are used to take out dyes of the inks which is a relatively neat process, but it does disturb the surface coating on the paper which is revealed as a stain or fluorescence at the point of erasure.

Abrasive types of erasure are detected by the disturbance of the paper fibres. This can be readily seen through a microscopic examination of the document.

Typewriter erasures using a lift off ribbon can be usually detected with the aid of low angle or oblique lighting go reveal the indentations of the lifted off script.

Decipherment of erasures is possible in some instances. No technique will necessarily decipher a complete erasure. However, a combination of low magnification, examination through coloured filters to enhance contrast, high contrast photography, infra-red and infra-red luminescence examination using a video spectral comparator to enhance the image, and an examination of the indentations caused by the writing instrument using low angle or oblique light techniques can assist in the restoration of the erased entry.


The purpose of such examinations is to determine if the obliteration is the result of an honest mistake or is a deliberate attempt to conceal information and to decipher and identify the original entry that was obliterated.

Modern technology is applied to these types of examinations using a video spectral comparator.

In simple terms materials that are subjected to light energy can reflect, absorb and transmit that energy. The effect depends on the specimen being irradiated, the wavelength of energy and the viewing wavelengths.

Conversion of light energy of one wavelength to energy of a longer wavelength is called luminescence.

Some inks exposed to ultra-violet energy become excited and luminescent in the visible light range. Other inks when exposed to visible light become excited and luminescent in the infra-red region of the electomagnetic spectrum.

The video spectro-scanner provides real time examination of inks covering the ultra-violet, visible and infra-red range. A CCD video camera converts infra-red light into the visible light range that is viewed on a monitor. A video copy processor can produce a copy of the resultant image. The light energy source is typically from a patented Australian design known as the Polilight.

Detection and Deciphering of Indented Writing

When writing occurs on paper which is on top of other sheets of paper, indentations of that writing may appear on some of the bottom pages depending on the pen pressure. Information determined from these indented writings can reveal incriminating evidence of fraud.

Traditionally, indented writing was best detected and deciphered using low angle or oblique lighting techniques. However an instrument called ESDA (Electrostatic Detection Apparatus) uses photocopy principles to produce a transparency of the indented impressions on the document.

While ESDA has been very successful in detecting indented impressions on documents when all other techniques have failed, it also has failed to produce results at other times. Hence, traditional methods can never be overlooked.


This has been a thumb nail sketch of some of the work the document examiner is capable of undertaking. I have not covered topics such as:-

Alterations by addition;
Charred documents;
Business equipment such as adding machines, cheque protectors, photocopiers, printing processes, Computers, facsimiles and word processors;
Chemical analysis of inks;
Type of writing instruments.

You can see the expertise of the document examiner is varied.



In Australia bona-fide document examiners have almost exclusively been trained in government or police forensic laboratories that consist both of academic and practical experience under the supervision of an experienced and qualified examiner. This programme typically takes between 3 to 4 years to complete. It includes:-

1.Taking formal courses where offered.
2.Studying the literature and satisfactorily completing a two year structured programme on all aspects of questioned document examination.
3.The actual examination of numerous questioned documents under supervision.
4.The study of legal aspects of document examination.
5. Mock trial exercises.

There is no academic programme in Australia or overseas that offers a degree in the profession of questioned document examination or that would adequately qualify an examiner for the work.

Although examiners may be qualified to offer testimony in court after satisfactory completion of the training programme, this does not indicate that they have the same degree of knowledge as a senior document examiner. Some examiners may always need to have some form of supervision.

Demonstration of Findings in Court

The findings of a document examiner must be demonstrable to a court and jury. Hence, the document examiner will normally produce a court exhibit chart to assist the court and jury in understanding the way in which the document examiner reached his conclusion. These charts usually consist of enlarged photographs of the questioned and known handwriting, typewriting etc. The examiner will refer to this chart during his testimony.

Pseudo Document Examiners

There has always been a fringe element of persons who claim to be handwriting experts or document examiners. Some of these people are graphologists, that is, a person who claims that they can determine another persons personality from their handwriting. This association with handwriting has led these individuals to further claim that they can also identify handwriting and determine whether a signature is forged or genuine.

Another group of individuals who claim to be experts in the field are the pseudo experts. These persons usually have degree qualifications in a scientific discipline but they have not undertaken any academic training nor practical experience under the supervision of an experienced examiner in questioned document examination.

They attempt to qualify themselves through a loose association with the field and via their scientific background.

In assessing the bona-fides of an examiner an important aspect to consider is the equipment the examiner has and claims to have access to. It will become apparent non bona-fide persons have little equipment and only a scant knowledge of the equipment available for examinations.


Hopefully this paper has enlightened you about the field of document examination, its beginnings and its scope and limitations. It has been a brief overview and there is much that I have not discussed. However this insight into document examination should make you aware of the capabilities of the document examiner to assist you with any document problem that you might confront. The easiest way to find out if your problem is solvable is to ask a forensic document examiner.

Chris Anderson
Forensic Document Examiner



Baker J. Newton, The Law of Disputed and Forged Documents
- The Michie Company - Virginia
Harrison Wilson R.Suspect Documents - Their Scientific Examination
- Sweet and Maxwell - London.
Hilton Ordway Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents
- Elsevier - New York.
Osborn Albert S.Questioned Documents
- Patterson Smith - New Jersey.
Saferstein Richard (Editor)Forensic Science Handbook
- Prentice Hall - New Jersey.