PROVING HANDWRITING IN CIVIL CASES: EXPERT EVIDENCE NOT ALWAYS NECESSARY

I am returning to the decision of Chief Master Marsh in  44 Wellfit Street Ltd v GMR Services Ltd [2017] EWHC 1841 (Ch). We have already looked at that case in relation to false emails and the significance of CPR 32.19 .  There were other interesting observations in relation to handwriting.  Expert evidence is not always necessary to dispute the authenticity of handwriting.

THE CASE

The defendant alleged that a person, now deceased, had signed a new lease. The claimant disputed the fact that the lease was genuine. The claimant did not call any expert evidence to question the signature.  Although the claimant had served notice under CPR 32.19 stating that it did not accept the authenticity of the document.

THE JUDGMENT

“Handwriting evidence – the law and the facts
    1. The Defendant is critical of the way in which the Claimant has proceeded with the claim. It is said that the trial has come on with undue haste and the Claimant has not sought permission to rely upon expert handwriting evidence. However, it is a matter for the Claimant to decide upon the way in which it wishes to present its case and the choice to rely upon expert evidence is one by which the Claimant’s case must stand or fall. That said, in the absence of any original documents the scope of expert evidence would have been limited to a comparison of signatures and initials on the copy documents disclosed with signatures on original documents by Mr Parritt and Paul Glynn.
    2. Witnesses may not generally, unless they are experts, compare specimen signatures with disputed signatures and express an opinion about the likeness or otherwise of the disputed signature to the true samples. For that reason, the court has not admitted Ms Portman’s expressions of opinion. However, evidence of identity of a person, or familiarity with a signature, is not regarded as expert opinion. A witness is entitled to say that is has seen a person’s signature previously and the signature that is disputed is unlike the usual signature. Evidence of recognising a signature or, by parity of reasoning, not recognising a signature is admissible as the passage at para. 1-45 in Expert Evidence: Law and Practice 3rd ed. makes clear. At paragraph 1-046, the authors contrast the position concerning evidence of comparison, which they say is for an expert. In the case of recognition evidence, the weight to be given to it is a matter for the court.
    3. However, under s.8 of the unhelpfully titled Criminal Procedure Act 1865, the court has a role in comparing handwriting. The section provides:
“Comparison of a disputed writing with any writing proved to the satisfaction of the judge to be genuine shall be permitted to be made by witnesses; and such writings, and the evidence of witnesses respecting the same, may be submitted to the court and jury as evidence of the genuineness or otherwise of the writing in dispute.”
    1. This provision was discussed in Lockheed-Arabia v Owen [1993] 3 W.L.R. 468 by Mann LJ. He was satisfied that the section applies in civil proceedings. Halsbury at vol. 12 para. 886 contrasts the role of an expert with the role of the court in the following way:
“Experts may also give their opinions as to whether handwriting is natural or imitated, and whether it shows points of comparison, but it is for the court to determine whether a particular piece of writing is to be assigned to a particular person, and documents may be submitted to the court for comparisons to be made.”
  1. Support for a similar proposition can be found in Phipson on Evidence 18th ed. at para 33.92.
  2. In this case the court has been provided with evidence from Mr Leng that the signature appearing on the letters relied upon by the Defendant is not his. I accept his evidence and it is unnecessary for the court to attempt a comparison between his normal signature and that which appears of the letters. Of more significance is the evidence Mr Leng gives about Mr Parritt’s initials on the Lease and the Option.
  3. Mr Harris says, and I accept, he is familiar with Mr Parritt’s signature having seen it many, many times. He says he is struck by the initials JP that appear on both documents and that they are in a style with which he is not familiar. Mr Parritt always signed and initialled with a flourish. Mr Leng has produced a document that has seven pages initialled by Mr Parritt. I accept they are genuine samples. The initials appear as JAP and are signed with a flourish like his genuine signature. The initials JP on the Lease and the Option are, as far as it is possible to discern without a forensic examination, identical.
  4. In addition, the Claimant points to manuscript notes disclosed by the Defendant that are said by the Defendant to be notes made by Mr Parritt. If extracted from the notes the letter “J” in “June” appears to be identical to the J in the initials JP on each page of the Lease and the Option. But, it might be said, if Mr Parritt did initial each page of the Lease and the Option his J would be likely to be similar to other Js written by him.
  5. More telling, to my mind, is the lack of difference between initials repeated on multiple occasions and the very different style between the JAP written with a flourish by Mr Parritt and the JP which is uniform. These are strong indications that the Lease and the Option were not executed by Mr Parritt.”

THE RESULT

The claimant succeeded. The Master observed

(c) The witnesses to the August 2015 agreement were not called to give evidence by the Defendant. Where the authenticity of a formal document is challenged, calling the witnesses to the signatures is essential where they can be located. The court was given no reason to believe, for example, that Shannon Glynn, who is Aimee Glynn’s sister, was not available.