The fallibility of memory in judicial processes: Lessons from the past and their modern consequences

Mark L. Howe*, Lauren M. Knott

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The capability of adult and child witnesses to accurately recollect events from the past and provide reliable testimony has been hotly debated for more than 100 years. Prominent legal cases of the 1980s and 1990s sparked lengthy debates and important research questions surrounding the fallibility and general reliability of memory. But what lessons have we learned, some 35 years later, about the role of memory in the judicial system? In this review, we focus on what we now know about the consequences of the fallibility of memory for legal proceedings. We present a brief historical overview of false memories that focuses on three critical forensic areas that changed memory research: children as eyewitnesses, historic sexual abuse and eyewitness (mis)identification. We revisit some of the prominent trials of the 1980s and 1990s to not only consider the role false memories have played in judicial decisions, but also to see how this has helped us understand memory today. Finally, we consider the way in which the research on memory (true and false) has been successfully integrated into some courtroom procedures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)633-656
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2015


  • Childhood memories
  • Eyewitness identification
  • Forensic interviewing
  • Expert witnesses
  • False memories
  • Memory evidence

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