Handwriting analysis deserves its day in court

Hand writing

The privacy trial which Meghan Markle recently won against the Mail on Sunday served as an international showcase for the use of handwriting analysis—but in exactly the wrong way.

An evaluation by supposed handwriting expert Emma Bache that the Duchess of Sussex’s handwriting indicated that she suffered from anxiety and was a narcissist was dismissed as “pseudoscientific” by solicitors in court, an assessment that most independent observers would likely agree with.

The pseudo-examination of the former actress’s penmanship, however, should hardly be taken as a representative example of handwriting analysis. Properly done, the technique has managed to shed light on hopelessly muddled cases, identifying forgeries and uncovering fraudulent schemes.

The curious case of two agreements

Just this week, the influential Austrian media outlet Der Standard reported on a new expert handwriting assessment which could mark a turning point in the long-running legal battle between London-based Russian billionaire Elena Baturina and her brother Viktor Baturin. Baturina, who moved to the UK in 2011, has spent the past decade feuding with her brother in and out of the courtroom over Inteco, the real estate firm they created together in 1991.

At the heart of the siblings’ squabble is a settlement agreement outlining the conditions under which Elena Baturina acquired her brother’s remaining Inteco shares. The warring siblings have each proffered copies of the settlement agreement, which differ in key respects. Viktor Baturin’s version of the document indicates that he should be paid compensation in exchange for his 25% of Inteco, while Baturina’s copy makes no mention of any such compensation. Baturin has alleged that his sister’s copy was falsified, while Baturina claims that her brother forged his edition. The difference between the duelling documents even saw Baturin spend 3 years in prison, after he was accused of forging Inteco promissory notes—notes which he maintains are rooted in his copy of the agreement with his sister.

A court-ordered handwriting analysis may now lift the case out of “he said/she said” stagnation. According to expert Christian Grafl, both contentious signatures— the signature purporting to be Baturina’s in Viktor’s copy, and the signature purporting to be Baturin’s in Elena’s copy—were “with a high degree of probability” executed by Elena Baturina. The expert opinion raises the possibility that Baturina falsified her brother’s signature on the version of the document which did not grant him any compensation—and could even reopen the old case for which Baturin went to prison, potentially leading to the quashing of the verdict against him.

Lifting the lid on a banking scandal

If the expert handwriting analysis carried out in Vienna could have huge impacts on the feuding siblings’ fortunes, another case could provide a reprieve for dozens of wronged Britons—and serve up a damning indictment of a broad swath of the British banking sector.

Anti-corruption campaigners and MPs alike are ratcheting up the pressure on the UK’s National Crime Agency for apparently failing to investigate explosive allegations that a number of the country’s biggest banks forged signatures “on an industrial scale” in order to repossess customers’ homes. The NCA has reportedly received at least 19 boxes of evidence related to the brewing scandal, yet has apparently not contacted a single one out of hundreds of potential victims and has not begun an official investigation, prompting Parliament’s Treasury Committee to demand an update on the case.

The alleged misconduct was first reported in July 2019, when a BBC investigation set out evidence that a number of British financial institutions, including state-owned UK Asset Resolution, Northern Rock, and Lloyds, carried out a concerted campaign to forge signatures on court documents in order to get people who were behind on their mortgages out of their homes. One alleged victim, for example, was forced into homelessness with her two young daughters amidst a dispute over business debts. Her bank offered courts a photocopy of what they claimed was a £47,000 personal guarantee statement she had signed allowing them to seize her family home in order to repay her business debts. The problem is that she insists that she never signed the document, something which she asserts she has documentary evidence to prove.

Handwriting experts have already combed through some of the evidence collected by the BBC, finding that nearly-identical signatures appeared on court documents under different names, while in other cases dramatically different signatures were attributed to the same name. The troubling allegations have raised recollections of a similar scenario in the US, in which one of the most important providers of notarized mortgage documents employed “surrogate signers” to fraudulently sign thousands of foreclosure documents under a fake name, leading to a £19 billion settlement. Whether UK mortgage owners were defrauded on as massive a scale as their American cousins remains to be seen—and expert handwriting analysis will prove essential to untangling the thorny case.

While the “handwriting analysis” which recently made headlines as part of Meghan Markle’s blockbuster case scarcely deserves the name, the technique, when executed by properly trained experts, plays a unique role in establishing the authenticity of documents, clearing the name of those wrongfully accused and tracking down those hoping to hide behind the anonymity of their scrawl.