Can Law Trust Your Memory?

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Witness's memories are vital to the law and justice but memory is much more fallible than we realise.

Yesterday The British Psychological Society will launch a set of guidelines developed to provide people who work in law with the latest scientific evidence to consider issues relating to memory.

The report is the culmination of an international working group set up by the Research Board of the British Psychological Society to study the latest evidence on human memory and how that evidence could be of use to the legal professions.

The report has some sobering key points on the reliability of people’s memories in court cases. Key points of ‘Memory and Law’ include:

- The content of memories arises from an individual’s comprehension of an experience, both conscious and non-conscious. This content can be further modified and changed by subsequent recall


- Any account of a memory will feature forgotten details and gaps

- People can remember events that they have not in reality experienced

Professor Martin Conway of Leeds University, the main author of the report, said;

"In many legal cases, memory may feature as the main, or the only source of evidence, and is nearly always critical to the course and outcome of the case or litigation. It is therefore vital that those involved in legal work are well informed of developments in the scientific study of memory - how memories are created, their content, and how they are remembered for example.

There is a tendency for people involved in the criminal justice system to influence witnesses memories of events, intentionally or unintentionally. This might be by asking leading questions or by reinforcing memories while recapping what a witness has said.

We have developed these guidelines to provide an accessible and scientifically accurate basis from which they can consider relevant legal issues relating to memory."