The legal system prefers to hold the admirable point of view that evidence is genuine and everything said on oath is true. In the majority of cases this is more or less true, give or take a little mis-remembering in the witness stand. Every so often, however, a case comes along which requires a very different approach to evidence.
For a solicitor, it’s an awkward moment when your client calls out the other side for forging signatures or producing fraudulent documents. Yes, there are ways of investigating, but it’s far from the simple matter that some detective shows might make out.
Frequently, the offending article is a signature – especially these days as relatively few documents are handwritten. Unfortunately, with only a single signature to work with, a handwriting expert may not be able to come to any reliable conclusion. The situation is worse if the only available example of the questionable document is a photocopy or scan. A graphologist can gain an enormous amount of information from the minute impressions of a pen that the original document would preserve. These marks – showing precisely how the writer held the pen and formed the letters – are as much a signature as the signature itself.
Handwriting reports, therefore, are seldom open and shut, and can also be a relatively expensive venture for the accusing party to fund, and many judges may be slow to accept that one party has gone beyond simply arguing their case with appropriate vehemence and moved on to active dishonesty – perhaps surprisingly given the large amount of routine dishonesty that judges must surely see every day.
Of course, context is important. In one case dealt with by Blacks a few years ago, the Defendant had arranged for the removal of a charge over his land, producing a document to the Land Registry allegedly signed by the Claimant. In this case, the circumstances of the signature were sufficiently remarkable for the court to accept the accusation of forgery – the Defendant took the document away from his solicitor and brought it back signed shortly afterwards, with himself as the “witness”. The obvious self-interest involved, along with the well-documented reliance on the charge by the Claimant, combined with the handwriting evidence to tip the balance.
More recently, another case that came to Blacks involved forgery on a truly grand scale. In this matter, the Defendant was a purveyor of World War II memorabilia who seemed to have a source for paraphernalia associated with notable and well-documented pilots such as Guy Gibson. On offer was clothing, correspondence, flight books, equipment and pieces of aircraft, all either bearing the name and initials, or supported by typed provenance from now-closed RAF museums.
Unfortunately, as it fell out, none of it was genuine – or at least while most pieces were indeed from WWII, the link to historical individuals was entirely faked. In this case, rather than a signature or two, the handwriting expert had a truly remarkable range of handwritten material to work from – from log entries through to name tags in coats: certainly enough to demonstrate the link between the handwriting on the artefacts and that on the receipts. Moreover, typed documents purportedly from a variety of official sources turned out to have been produced on the same vintage typewriter, with a few distinctively glitchy letters. Faced with that evidence, the vendor was persuaded to provide a full refund including costs.
Sometimes it is just like a detective novel, after all.