1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Handwriting

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HANDWRITING. Under Palaeography and Writing, the history of handwriting is dealt with. Questions of handwriting come before legal tribunals mainly in connexion with the law of evidence. In Roman law, the authenticity of documents was proved first by the attesting witnesses; in the second place, if they were dead, by comparison of handwritings. It was necessary, however, that the document to be used for purposes of comparison either should have been executed with the formalities of a public document, or should have its genuineness proved by three attesting witnesses. The determination was apparently, in the latter case, left to experts, who were sworn to give an impartial opinion (Code 4, 21. 20). Proof by comparison of handwritings, with a reference if necessary to three experts as to the handwriting which is to be used for the purposes of comparison, is provided for in the French Code of Civil Procedure (arts. 193 et seq.); and in Quebec (Code Proc. Civ. arts. 392 et seq.) and St Lucia (Code Civ. Proc. arts. 286 et seq.), the French system has been adopted with modifications. Comparison by witnesses of disputed writings with any writing proved to the satisfaction of the judge to be genuine is accepted in England and Ireland in all legal proceedings whether criminal or civil, including proceedings before arbitrators (Denman Act, 28 & 29 Vict. c. 18, 55. 1, 8); 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. It is admitted in Scotland (where the term comparatio literarum is in use) and in most of the American states, subject to the same conditions. In England, prior to the Common Law Procedure Act of 1854 (now superseded by the act of 1866), documents irrelevant to the matter in issue were not admissible for the sole purpose of comparison, and this rule has been adopted, and is still adhered to, in some of the states in America. In England, as in the United States, and in most legal systems, the primary and best evidence of handwriting is that of the writer himself. Witnesses who saw him write the writing in question, or who are familiar with his handwriting either from having seen him write or from having corresponded with him, or otherwise, may be called. In cases of disputed handwriting the court will accept the evidence of experts in handwriting, i.e. persons who have an adequate knowledge of handwriting, whether acquired in the way of their business or not, such as solicitors or bank cashiers (R. v. Silverlock, 1894, 2 Q.B. 766). In such cases the witness is required to compare the admitted handwriting of the person whose writing is in question with the disputed document, and to state in detail the similarities or differences as to the formation of words and letters, on which he bases his opinion as to the genuineness or otherwise of the disputed document. By the use of the magnifying glass, or, as in the Parnell case, by enlarged photographs of the letters alleged to have been written by Mr Parnell, the court and jury are much assisted to appreciate the grounds on which the conclusions of the expert are founded. Evidence of this kind, being based on opinion and theory, needs to be very carefully weighed, and the dangers of implicit reliance on it have been illustrated in many cases (e.g. the Beck case in 1904; and see Seaman v. Netherclift, 1876, 1 C.P.D. 540). Evidence by comparison of handwriting comes in principally either in default, or in corroboration, of the other modes of proof.

Where attestation is necessary to the validity of a document, e.g. wills and bills of sale, the execution must be proved by one or more of the attesting witnesses, unless they are dead or cannot be produced, when it is sufficient to prove the signature of one of them to the attesting clause (28 & 29 Vict. c. 18, s. 7). Signatures to certain public and official documents need not in general be proved (see e.g. Evidence Act, 1845, ss. 1, 2).

See Taylor, Law of Evidence (10th ed., London, 1906); Erskine Principles of the Law of Scotland (20th ed., Edinburgh, 1903); Bouvier, Law Dicty. (Boston and London, 1897); Harris, Identification (Albany, 1892); Hagan, Disputed Handwriting (New York, 1894); also the article Identification.  (A. W. R.)