5 min

How are dubious signatures analyzed in a judicial process?

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It may be an excuse for not paying, a ruse to lengthen a lawsuit, or it could also be the plain truth, but what’s for sure is that more than one company, bank or insurer has thought of what might happen if a client or provider doesn’t recognize their signature in a contract. Or the contrary situation could also happen: that a person claims to be the signer of an agreement, when in fact he or she is not.

What happens in these situations? The normal course of action, when a signature is questioned, is that the matter will enter the judicial field by civil means. However in some cases, especially when what is claimed is a monetary import, the issue can be taken to criminal court alleging the crime of falsified documents.

And the final question in front of court is: who has actually signed the contract? In order to determine a signer's identity in cases of contesting contracts, a forensic handwriting expert will analyze the dubious signature and perform a handwriting analysis to discover the signature’s true author.

In this post we want to talk about the work of a forensic handwriting expert and how he/she analyzes a signature, be it handwritten or electronic, to verify a signer's identity in case of litigation.

This post is also available in Spanish.

Is it really possible to alter a signature?

According to Ana Tapia, lawyer and handwriting expert, Founder and CEO of the company Rubrikae, “the signature is a very personal act, which includes very personal traits of the signer; and when doing it, what predominates are unconscious automated gestures.”

The predominance of our unconscious at the moment of signing, as well as the moment of writing, makes the graphic peculiarities of our writing continuous over time, since they come from automatic gestures and are therefore very difficult to modify without a great effort.

If the alleged signer of a contract made a conscious effort to modify his/her signature, this effort would leave a trace on the signature - in the pressure, the symmetry, the character spacing, etc. All of the aforementioned characteristics are what a handwriting expert is able to detect through a comparative analysis between the dubious signature and the signature recognized by the alleged signer. This is what is called a forensic handwriting analysis or a “letter comparison test”.

In order to carry out the handwriting test, in addition to comparing the dubious signature with one recognized by the signer, an expert will also need to collect a body of writing in court, which is a text of more than 10 lines that the alleged signer will be asked to write. According to Ana Tapia, “in the last line it will be practically impossible for a person to write with a style that is not his/her own, as he/she will be writing unconsciously, without thinking.”

What is a dubious signature?

In legal terms, a questioned signature is called a dubious signature. In a judicial process, the dubious signature would be compared with a signature that is either done by the alleged signer in the presence of court, or is extracted from public documents (such as signatures in notarized deeds, the signature on an ID card or passport, etc.). The expert can also compare the dubious signature with a signature previously acknowledged by the person who is judicially challenged.

How is the comparative analysis process of a handwritten signature to verify a signer's identity in case of litigation?

In order to compare a questionable (or dubious) signature with one recognized by the supposed signer, a handwriting expert will use three types of procedures:

  1. Graphometric procedures: the analogies of the signature’s graphic forms are analyzed.

  2. Graphonomic procedures: objective and measurable elements of the signature are analyzed, such as the angles of the stroke, the laterality, the distance between letters, the size of circles, etc.

  3. Graphoscope procedures: the signature is analyzed with a microscopic stereoscope, a mobile magnifying glass and digital media.

The conclusions of all these tests are reflected in a report with a legal format, (in Spain, according to the STANDARD UNE-197001:2011), which usually has around 30 pages and details the steps taken in the comparative analysis process.

This expert report is presented and defended by the handwriting expert in the corresponding procedure, at the appropriate time. The expert can go directly to trial, if the process goes through a civil suit. If the process goes through a criminal suit, in the instruction phase a judge may request a ratification of the expert before the trial. This ratification is attended by the lawyers, the expert, and often the judge, but not the parties.

On the other hand, there are already some computer programs that analyze the temporary development of the signature and the hand's movements made for its stamping, as well as the rising of the writing tool in the manual process. While it's more difficult to analyze the graphonomic element of pressure, at the same time it can analyze better the more objective and measurable parameters such as the speed, the rhythm, the intergrammatic  distance and the graphical cohesion.

A forensic handwritting expert is not the same as a graphologist. What is the difference between them?

A forensic handwriting expert is someone who determines the author of a signature. He/she uses a series of procedures to analyze the handwriting, which allows to validate or refute the identity of an alleged signer.

Meanwhile, a graphologist is someone who studies the handwriting to analyze the personality traits of an individual.

In the case that a contract has been signed with an electronic signature, how is the comparative analysis process to verify the signer's identity? 

More and more banks, insurers and all types of companies use the electronic signature to sign contracts and documents. In case of litigation, the procedure of comparative analysis for these kind of signatures is the same as if the signature is handwritten. The only thing that changes is the type of previous analysis, meaning the way in which the sample of the original signature is collected: in order to compare a dubious signature made with electronic means with a signature recognized by the alleged signer, he/she should make a signature in the same conditions as the questionable signature.

Whether the signature was done with a stylus on a tablet, from the smartphone with the index finger, or from a desktop computer using the mouse or the trackpad, the forensic handwriting expert can analyze this signature and compare it with another done in the same conditions.

Just as in the previous case, the results of the analysis will be reflected in a legal report that will be presented and defended in the corresponding procedure, in the moment that the forensic handwriting expert is called for.

The reality is that the tendency is to use more and more electronic tools to make signatures. Technology’s main contribution in this area is the reliability in measuring objective elements, on one hand; and the reduction of the subjective part on the other hand: some “details” could escape the expert, or the results could be interpreted erroneously. Technology offers a much higher guarantee of reliability.

How much does it cost to hire a forensic handwriting expert to verify the signer's identity in court?

In Spain, creating a legal report for a dubious signature has a minimum cost of 600€ + tax. This price could be double or more in cities such as Madrid or Barcelona, and also increases depending on the number of dubious signatures, at the rate of an additional 100€ for each signature that needs to be analyzed, approximately. 

In the case of Signaturit’s advanced electronic signature, the advantage that our solution offers is that it includes biometric data capture technology, which allows us to obtain biometric data from the signer’s graph, and we can make this available to a forensic handwriting expert in case it is required by court.

The biometric information that we collect includes all the points that make up a graph, its position, the speed and acceleration with which it was made, and on the devices that allow it, we also capture the pressure with which the signature was made.

In case a signature made with our advanced electronic signature solution was dubious, this biometric information can be made available to the forensic handwriting expert, who could compare it with a signature made by the alleged signer in court, using our electronic signature solution with the same device that he/she would have used to make the dubious signature.

In addition to being able to present an expert report, with the reliability that confers the fact that the biometric data that we collect are impossible to falsify, those who use our advanced electronic signature solution also have a series of electronic evidences collected during the signature process. These evidences offer information on the realization of the signature, such as the location where the signature was made, the date and time, or the IP direction, among others.

This information, which could be called contextual information, is included in the audit trail document that could also be presented to court as complementary information to verify the signer's identity in a judicial process

This post is also available in Spanish.