Selecting a Document Examiner

The most important criteria for choosing a professional in any field is his or her ability to do the job and do it well. This is especially true in the field of document examination. Document examiners must be able to draw correct conclusions about questioned documents and present the evidence concisely and clearly in a court of law. How does one go about finding a qualified and competent document examiner?

Future performance is predicted on past accomplishments. Ideally, the best references come from attorneys who have used the expert's services in the past. Attorneys who have cross-examined an expert in court or deposition are powerful witnesses to an expert's abilities.

It is important to review a CV critically and to verify specific information on the CV. Naturally an expert is going to emphasize his or her strong points and minimize any problems. Often what is not stated on a CV is as important as what is revealed.

Board Certification

One of the most important criteria for forensic scientists is board certification. It is essential to investigate the type of board certification possessed by the expert. Board certification varies among different organizations. Some organizations have grandfathered in many of their experts so that they were awarded board certification without having taken any testing to determine their ability in the field of document examination. Certification testing should meet the national standards of reliability and validity. It must test the knowledge and skill of the examiner in all areas related to document examination.

In 1995, the Strategic Planning Committee of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) recommended establishing a mechanism to access certification in the various fields of Forensic Science. As a result, the Forensic Specialty Accreditation Board (FSAB) was formed in 2000 to accredit certification in the various fields of Forensic Science. Each certifying board must test all the areas of expertise required for their field. A list of accredited boards can be found on the FSAB website at

Proficiency tests attempt to duplicate the type of work that forensic examiners handle in their laboratories on a regular basis and to test document examiners' ability to identify genuine, disguised and simulated writing. At the present time, the Forensic Expertise Profiling Laboratory comes closest to providing valuable proficiency tests that measure performance of individual examiners.

When interviewing an expert about his or her proficiency testing, you need to ask very specific questions. The expert may claim 100% accuracy on testing based upon a few correct responses and considerable inconclusive answers. Thus, the expert's 100% correct can be misleading. Ask for the number of opinions given based upon the number of problems presented. Check with the agency that provides the testing for an accurate assessment of the expert's responses.

There is no standard training program for document examiners. Science consists of principles and standards that a scientist must know in order to work in that field. Document examination is no exception. Students of document examination need to understand the principles of handwriting and handwriting identification in order to become proficient at determining the authenticity of handwriting. Once the student understands the principles, he can learn the practical aspects of document examination. At present, there are very few courses available in higher institutions of learning that offer the basic training in document examination. Hopefully, colleges will begin offering basic training.

Ability to Do the Work

Ordway Hilton wrote in The Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents, The most important qualification of a witness is his ability to do the work. There is no school at which a document examiner, unlike an engineer or a doctor, can study to prepare himself. Some universities have offered special courses on questioned document examination, but these have not as yet been of high enough caliber to develop a proficient work. (p 406)

He continues, “Self-study is the chief means of gaining this special knowledge.” And he concludes, “Self-education must include study by experimentation and systematic research.” Many document examiners have learned the field through self-education. Other examiners get their training through an apprenticeship program. However, the student is only as good as his teacher. There is no guarantee that a two year apprentice leads to correct opinions.

An attorney once said that he wanted to hire the expert that wrote the book. Being published is a valuable credential for any expert witness. The publications demonstrate the knowledge of the writer and the ability to communicate clearly.


A list of questions should be asked of document examiners you are considering hiring. In addition to the standard questions about an expert's background and training, the following questions could be useful:

  • Have you studied the development of handwriting from childhood to graphic maturity?
  • Have studied the factors that affect handwriting such as: long term illness, trauma and the effects of drugs and substance abuse on handwriting.
  • Have you studied the handwriting of handicapped writers?
  • Have you studied the effects of personality on handwriting?
  • Have you conducted research in the field of document examination? In what areas?
  • What is your rate of accuracy and how was it determined?

Your initial contact with a prospective expert is similar to a job interview. You are assessing the expert to determine if she is suitable for your case and the expert is determining if she has the necessary skills to assist you. A thorough investigation of the expert's background will enable you to make a suitable choice of a qualified document examiner.