HANDWRITING EXPERTS COME UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: CLAIMANT’S EVIDENCE NOT ACCEPTED

Issues relating to handwriting experts comprise a surprisingly large percentage of the search terms that lead to this blog.  The question of the quality of such experts was considered by Master Clark in Watts v Watts [2023] EWHC 679 (Ch).

“There is nothing in this description or in Mr Cobb’s CV that refers to or demonstrates expertise in handwriting analysis. Although in cross-examination, he said that his qualifications under the guidelines of the Scientific Working Group for Document Examiners (SWGDOC) included traditional handwriting analysis, there is nothing in his CV to show that he has ever carried out such an analysis.”

THE CASE

The claimant brought an action alleging that a will was a forgery. The Master rejected that argument on the basis of the evidence given, particularly by the solicitor who drafted the will. The claimant relied on expert evidence in relation to handwriting. The Master went on to consider the expert evidence. He rejected the evidence of the claimant’s expert and accepted the evidence of the expert instructed by the defendant.

THE JUDGMENT ON EXPERT EVIDENCE

41. Having accepted Ms Evans’ evidence, it is unnecessary in my judgment to consider the expert evidence. However, in case I am wrong about that, I turn to it.

    1. Both parties rely on the reports of experts within the field of document examination. Carlton’s expert, Mr Cobb, produced 3 reports:
(1) “Analysis of the Horizontal Alignment of the Text within the Documents”, 15 January 2022 (“the Cobb Horizontal Alignment Report”);
(2) “Document Examination of: The Last Will and Testament of Eustace Fitzgerald Watts”, 20 January 2022 (“the Cobb Report”);
(3) “Rebuttal Report of the Document Examination of Michael Handy”, 28 September 2022 (“the Rebuttal Report”).
    1. Mrs Watt’s expert was Mr Michael Handy, who produced a report entitled “Forensic Examination Documents and Comparison of Signatures”, 5 August 2022 (“the Handy Report”).
    1. The following documents were made available to the experts:
(1) the original will – this is a single A3 sheet folded in half so that each typed page is A4 size;
(2) the PDF;
(3) the 2009 photocopy;
(4) a photocopy of the signature page of Fraser’s will dated 27 January 2000 (“Fraser’s will”)
Claimant’s expert
    1. Mr Cobb sets out his expertise as follows:
“I am a Paper Scientist and Forensic Document Examiner, I have been involved in the research, development, production and testing of various grades of paper for over 29 years. … I consult and assist Handwriting Experts and Forensic Document Examiners with examinations related to paper and paper properties. I have presented at several national and international conferences, educating handwriting experts and forensic document examiners in the aspects of paper and print properties, and how they present clues to forensic analysis.
… In my forensic paper analysis methodology …”
    1. There is nothing in this description or in Mr Cobb’s CV that refers to or demonstrates expertise in handwriting analysis. Although in cross-examination, he said that his qualifications under the guidelines of the Scientific Working Group for Document Examiners (SWGDOC) included traditional handwriting analysis, there is nothing in his CV to show that he has ever carried out such an analysis.
    1. More importantly, Mr Cobb refers to only one sample of Mrs Watts’ signature, albeit he does not state the source. He then only considers similarities in the alignment of the lettering of this signature and the deceased’s signature. No consideration is given, or analysis undertaken, of samples of the deceased’s handwriting and signatures.
    1. By contrast, the Handy Report:
(1) makes reference to 18 samples of the deceased and Defendant’s handwriting and signatures over a 65-year period;
(2) identifies natural variations;
(3) undertakes a forensic assessment of the deceased’s and Mrs Watts’ handwriting and signatures; and
(4) concludes there were “no significant differences between the questioned and examined reference signatures of the deceased”.
    1. In cross-examination, Mr Cobb presented as confused, and was unable to explain the basis for his opinions. His evidence is discussed further below, but the unsatisfactory features of his evidence can be summarised as follows:
(1) The Cobb Report states (at page 5, Figure 6) that when the 2009 photocopy was superimposed on a scan of the original will, the solicitors’ signatures did not align – in cross examination, he accepted this was incorrect and that the signatures do align. He attributed this to a typographical error. It was plainly an error, but not in my view a typographical one.
(2) In cross examination, Mr Cobb was asked why, since he accepted that the signatures on the original will and the 2009 photocopy were identical, scanned copies of the 2000 will were relevant. The question was put several times and he was unable to provide an answer.
(3) In the Rebuttal Report, Mr Cobb is confused on this point and refers to a comparison with Fraser’s will instead a comparison of the original will and the 2009 photocopy.
(4) Mr Cobb compared the witnesses’ signatures in the original will and a copy to Fraser’s will, without appropriately sizing up the copy of Fraser’s will to reflect the size of the original, and without using the typescript as a reference point (reflecting the fact that the 2 wills were produced from the same offices by the same processes).
(5) Mr Cobb’s account of what he meant by tracing was inconsistent and ultimately not credible.
(6) As set out above, Mr Cobb drew conclusions as to handwriting and signatures in the absence of comparables, and therefore without analysis of similarities.
(7) Mr Cobb could not explain why differences in horizontal alignment in the original will were relevant to whether it had been forged.
(8) Mr Cobb could not explain why differences in colour and horizontal alignment between the PDF and the original will were relevant to whether the original will had been forged.
    1. I turn to consider Mr Cobb’s conclusions as relied upon in the particulars of para 3 of the Amended Particulars of Claim:
“(i) There are inconsistencies in colour between the pages of [the PDF];
(ii) There are differences in the horizontal alignment of the text within [the original will];
(iii) There are differences in the in the horizontal alignment of the text within [the photocopy] and between it and [the original will];
(iv) The signatures of the solicitor and witness on [the original will] are in the same vertical alignment as in [Fraser’s will], which was processed within days of [the original will];
(v) The pen pressure of the solicitor’s and witness’s signatures are very similar;
(vi) The angle of letter formation with the handwritten date and signature of [the deceased] are identical to those of [Mrs Watts]’ signature;
(vii) There is a strong probability that there are several different versions of the 2000 will;
(viii) There is a strong probability that the solicitor’s and witness’s signatures on [the original will] were traced over from a copy of [Fraser’s will];
(ix) There is a strong probability that Mrs Watts prepared the original will after the deceased’s death.”
Inconsistencies in colour between the pages of the PDF
    1. In the PDF, pages 1,3 and 4 are in colour and page 2 is in grayscale. If the PDF is a copy of the original will, then these inconsistencies in colour must be attributable to how the scanning was carried out. In cross-examination, Mr Cobb accepted that the deceased’s signature on the PDF was the same as his signature on the original will, and therefore that the PDF is a copy of the original will. In cross-examination, he could not explain why these colour discrepancies were relevant to the issue of whether the original will was forged. I find that they are not.
Differences in the horizontal alignment of the text within the original will
    1. The lines of text in the original will show differences in alignment, which were measured by Mr Cobb. There is no misalignment for the first 5 paragraphs of the original will. The misalignment then begins, and gradually increases going down the page, though only to a maximum of 0.4385 degrees i.e. less than ½ a degree. Mr Handy’s evidence was that progressing variation is to be expected when a folded sheet of A3 paper is passed through a roller type printer like a typewrite or a hybrid system of the type described by Ms Evans. Mr Cobb accepted this. Furthermore, he was unable to explain in what other way the misalignment could have occurred, or if it showed forgery, how it did so.
    1. I find that these variations in horizontal alignment of the text within the original will have no relevance to whether it was forged.
Differences in the in the horizontal alignment of the text within [the photocopy] and between it and [the original will]
    1. Mr Handy’s evidence is that any discrepancies of this type are attributable to copying processes. Carlton’s counsel did not rely upon differences in horizontal alignment within the photocopy, which would, in any event, be in my judgment irrelevant. Insofar as there are differences in alignment between the photocopy and the original will, I find that this is due to distortion in the copying process. They are not relevant to whether the original will is a forgery.
Signatures of the solicitor and witness on [the original will] are in the same vertical alignment as in [Fraser’s will]
    1. Mr Cobb’s conclusion on this point was based on superimposing the original will over the copy of Fraser’s will. However, as he accepted, the copy of Fraser’s will requires enlarging by 5% to reflect the size of the original (of Fraser’s will); and when this is done, the signatures do not align, either vertically or horizontally.
Pen pressure of the solicitor’s and witness’s signatures are very similar
    1. Mr Cobb’s opinion was that “the pen pressure of the solicitor’s and witness’s signatures are very similar, consistent with being written by a single person”. In cross-examination, he accepted that this was a purely visual assessment, without access to any samples of signatures or handwriting of the two signatories.
    1. Mr Handy’s evidence was that the pen pressure employed was not quantifiable, and, while it did not appear to be significantly different between the two signatures, no inference could be drawn from this. He notes that both signatures and handwriting have been fluently made and that there is no evidence to suggest other than a free, natural hand.
    1. As to this point, Mr Cobb did not say that such similarity of pen pressure was sufficient to conclude that the two signatures were written by the same person, only that it was consistent with that conclusion. In my judgment, it is plainly not sufficient, and I accept Mr Handy’s evidence that no inference can be drawn from it.
Angle of letter formation with the handwritten date and signature of [the deceased] are identical to those of [Mrs Watts]’ signature
    1. In the Cobb report (at p12), Mr Cobb superimposes a signature of Mrs Watts over that of the deceased on a scan of the original will and records that in his view the angle of formation of many of the letters in the two signatures are identical. However, as noted above, Mr Cobb did not consider samples of either the deceased’s or Mrs Watts’s signatures or handwriting in producing his report.
Strong probability that there are several different versions of the 2000 will
    1. This is in my judgment an allegation which has no evidential basis, and is in any event irrelevant. The court has only to determine the authenticity of the one document before it.
Strong probability that the solicitor’s and witness’s signatures on [the original will] were traced over from a copy of [Fraser’s will]
    1. Mr Handy’s evidence, which I accept, is that the solicitor’s and witness’s signatures on the original will have been fluently made and the degree of fluency could not have been achieved with tracing. These signatures are free hand productions. In addition, if they had been traced, a significantly greater degree of similarity between them would be expected.
    1. In the Cobb Report (page 6, Figure 7), Mr Cobb superimposed the original will and his copy of Fraser’s will, with the effect that the solicitor’s and witness’s signatures fitted over each other. As noted, he accepted that the copy of Fraser’s will required to be enlarged by 5% to reflect the size of its original; and that when this was done, the signatures did not align and were not identical.
    1. As to tracing, Mr Cobb’s evidence was difficult to follow. In his report he repeatedly refers to the signatures or signature section of Fraser’s will being placed under the paper of the alleged original and the signatures and writing being traced. In cross examination he initially confirmed that by this he meant “written over, traced over”.
    1. However, he then resiled from this and said that what he meant was first, resizing the signatures, then using those signatures as “guide” by which to copy the signature free hand. This is in my judgment fanciful.
    1. In any event, Fraser’s evidence was that he did not provide a copy of his will to Mrs Watts until after this claim was brought, so the factual basis for the allegation of tracing is not present.
Strong probability that Mrs Watts prepared the original will after the deceased’s death
    1. Mr Cobb does not set out any grounds for this conclusion. In particular, he does not identify any method of dating either the original will or the signatures/handwriting on it.
Defendant’s expert
    1. Mr Handy’s summary of his findings is that:
(1) There is “strong evidence that [the deceased] signed [the 2000 will] and also strong evidence that he completed the handwritten date on the same page”; and
(2) “Mr Cobb’s conclusion that ‘There is a strong probability that [Mrs Watts] authored the date and signature of [the deceased] on [the 2000 will]” is erroneous and unsafe based on examination of the items listed in his reports.
    1. As noted above, Mr Cobb does not refer to any samples of the deceased’s handwriting. The Handy Report refers to samples of the deceased’s and Mrs Watts’ handwriting, in a far more detailed and convincing exercise:
“… While there was an element of loss of fluency in the ‘E’ and to a lesser extent the ‘F’, the surname had been fluently made with feathered pen lines, for example, between the two ‘t’s and from the conclusion of the ‘s’ to the left hand ended of the cross bar of the ‘tt’ component” §26
“… when a signature is simulated, errors are usually found towards the end as opposed to the beginning, particularly should the latter stages be more complex in construction than preceding components, as was the case with the E. F. Watts signature” §27
“… There was no evidence of either pencil or indented guide lines associated with the signature, such as might be employed to assist with a signature’s simulation. Further, there was no evidence to suggest that the signature was other than a free hand reproduction” §28
    1. Mr Cobb questions the comparison signatures used by Mr Handy as being mostly many years older than the 2000 will, some nearly 70 years old. However, Mr Handy observes:
“Despite having been made over a period of at least sixty five years, the signatures were substantially similar to one another, indeed, there were no apparent significant differences between comparable components.” §35
    1. Carlton’s counsel made a number of criticisms of Mr Handy’s evidence (references are to paragraph numbers in his report):
(1) He accepts that he is unable to establish the range of natural variations in the Deceased’s signature (§42);
(2) He accepts that he had no reference signatures of the Deceased from the time at which the Deceased was supposed to have signed the will (§43);
(3) He noted a loss of fluency at the beginning of the alleged signature of the Deceased (§28);
(4) He makes his conclusion conditional on his being subsequently satisfied that the examined reference signatures broadly represent the Deceased’s signature at the time at which the will was signed (§52);
(5) He also qualifies his conclusion that there is strong evidence to say that the handwritten date on the alleged original will was written by the Deceased – he accepts that that his conclusion is affected by the limited quantity of the Deceased’s handwriting from the relevant time which was available to him.
    1. As to these criticisms, (1), (2) and (3) accurately summarise Mr Handy’s conclusions. However, he continues at §44:
“However, there were no significant differences between the questioned and reference [deceased] signatures, although none of the latter appeared to contain the element of fluency loss in the “E” and (to a lesser extent) “F”, as noted in the questioned signature; however, this could have been age related … he was aged 84 in 2000.”
    1. As to (4) and (5) it is also correct that Mr Handy’s conclusions are qualified by the limited quantity of handwriting from the relevant date, but not by the presence of any significant differences. His conclusions include that there was no evidence to suggest that the 2000 will was other than an “as signed” document.
  1. I have no hesitation in accepting Mr Handy’s evidence, and rejecting that of Mr Cobb.