Every specialty and expertise develop their own vernacular – a kind of code that is mutually understood by the experts and can easily be misunderstood by everyone else. Attorney clients often complain that forensic document examiners use language that is unfamiliar, especially when rendering opinions. I write my reports to conform to the guidelines published by the Scientific Working Group for Forensic Document Examiners (SWGDOC) which is fraught with confusing terms of art that require explanation either within the report or an exhibit.
A lot of dedicated experts have spent uncountable hours of unpaid time developing standards for every aspect of our practice. The goal is that clients should expect their experts to provide services using methodology that is consistent and based on current acceptable science. As a result, specific terminology develops that becomes a kind of shorthand for our processes. Here are a few of the terms from SWGDOC.org that you might find in an expert report:
Opinion terms – “Writer 1 PROBABLY wrote the signature in question”
The most common question by clients is…” what does it mean when you say my client probably wrote the signature?” According to SWGDOC, the term, “probable” means ”the evidence contained in the handwriting points rather strongly toward the questioned and known writings having been written by the same individual; however, it falls short of the “virtually certain” degree of confidence.”
Does this still sound like gobbledygook? In my interpretation, the term “probably”, or “likely,” could be considered equivalent to “more likely than not.” In other words, the evidence meets or exceeds the support necessary for burden of proof in civil court. There may be missing elements that preclude a more confident opinion, such as the quality of the copies or inadequate samples. If better evidence becomes available, the opinion could rise to the level of “very probable” or “most likely” which is equivalent to “virtually certain,” the level required for criminal court.
Other terms that have special meaning
- line quality, n—the sum total of the attributes of the writing movement (for example, speed, pressure, and skill).
- model signature, n—a signature that is used as a prototype for a simulation or copy, by manual electronic or other means.
- individualizing characteristic, n—marks or properties that serve to individualize writing.
Become familiar with the terminology used in your expert’s reports. Just ask about the parts that don’t make sense. I am happy to add more verbiage to clarify the terms of art that are a bit confusing. It is important that the report provide the impact necessary to support my findings. Communication with your expert is the key to the best work product.