Write to be Understood

In the 4th Century BCE, a Macedonian courier rode into Sparta with a message from his king: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people and raze your city.”  The Spartan ephors sent the courier back to King Philip with their response:  “If.”

Writing forensic reports is as much about the delivery of the findings to the intended reader as it is about the actual findings the author is attempting to communicate.  In the back-and-forth between Philip of Macedon and his Spartan antagonists, we see two extremes in the delivery of The Message:  Philip effectively said the same thing three times, as anyone in ancient times knew the consequences of resisting an invader.  The Spartans, for their part, signalled their rejection of Macedonian hegemony, and their confidence in their ability to break Philip’s fabled phalanx outside their own territory, in a single laconic word.  But forensic reports need to strike a balance between informing and boring the audience, and this is not always an easy balance to find.

The first problem is in defining who the audience actually is or, more to the point, what level of knowledge can be assumed for them.  And this inevitably covers a very wide spectrum.  In any given jury of twelve men and women, there will be some who are very au fait with the digital world.  When delivering digital evidence, you will notice that some jurors are nodding to themselves at the facts you deliver – they get what you are saying because they know what you are talking about.  And although they will have been instructed by the judge to view the evidence before them dispassionately, a report author might worry about boring or patronising them with an excessively detailed report dealing with basic principles and working on up to the key facts and observations.  But against these digitally-aware jurors (and judges, and lawyers) must be set those who don’t really understand digital technology beyond how to switch it on and off and use the high-level functions which have been installed by the manufacturer or their friends and families for them to use.

A common axiom relating to writing reports is that one should imagine that their granny will be reading it.  Many grannies and grandads these days are well-versed in digital technology and would be appalled by this characterisation, but my own grandmother managed to live five years short of a century without engaging with the digital age in any manner, and she therefore was the stereotype for whom that advice was compiled.

The temptation might be then to write a longer report to cater for audience members of the latter sort but the paradox here is that excessive verbiage risks boring or confusing them.  Both sorts of readers might also be alienated by overly terse, succinct commentary for different yet slightly overlapping reasons.

In striking the balance and composing a report which is readable and informative for all jurors, judges and lawyers, the basic framework of factual content should be laid out beforehand, either in mind or on screen.  Facts should be laid out in a logical and relevant sequence.  For example, in detailing the results of an Indecent Images case, the fact of the presence of illegal images should come first, then analysis relating to their accessibility, followed by evidence relating to provenance, user access and distribution to third parties.  To ensure that each paragraph is clearly defined by information already revealed in the report, facts and their direct implications should be written down in a linear fashion, while caveats, opinions (explicitly described as such) and other side issues should be addressed separately in their own sentences or paragraphs rather than as subordinate clauses to keep the report flowing.  Each paragraph or sequence of paragraphs should contain the factual content which the author wants to convey, with enough context to explain what the finding means, but with not enough to confuse or patronise the reader, depending on their knowledge level.

The proof of the pudding is always in the eating and writing reports is no exception.  When Counsel is delivering your evidence to the Court, and you are answering questions on it, if the jury is looking engaged and alert rather than bored or confused, you have probably struck the right balance between King Philip and the defiant Spartans.

Jason Dickson
Senior Digital Forensic Analyst