Research finds misconceptions about memory may affect child sexual abuse prosecutions

6 July 2017

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has released a new research report about how memory affects child sexual abuse prosecutions.

Professor Jane Goodman-Delahunty from Charles Sturt University, Associate Professor Mark A Nolan from the Australian National University and Dr Evianne van Gijn-Grosvenor were contracted by the Royal Commission to examine contemporary psychological scientific research evidence on memory.

The research report, Empirical Guidance on the Effects of Child Sexual Abuse on Memory and Complainant’s Evidence, outlines research findings that “common sense” beliefs about memory, frequently held by police, lawyers, judges, juries and laypeople, did not correspond with scientific knowledge about memory.

The research identifies a number of misconceptions that people hold about how memory works, and what memories are reliable. It reports that misconceptions about memory include that memory will be complete, unchanging and “photographic”.

There are also misconceptions about the accuracy of people’s memory. Wrong assumptions may be made about a connection between accuracy of a memory and consistency of accounts given by a witness, where inconsistencies or gaps may be assumed to demonstrate inaccuracy in the witness’s accounts as a whole.

The research finds there were misconceptions about the display of emotion while giving evidence being an indicator of accuracy of the memory retrieved.

Traumatic events resulting in greater durability of memory is another misconception as is expectations about children’s ability to recall temporal details, such as when an event occurred or how often it occurred, the report found.

A witness recalling additional information over time as they give further accounts of the event may be mistakenly considered with suspicion or as an indication of unreliability.

Understanding how human memory works, and how memory might be affected for child and adult complainants of child sexual abuse, is important to inform issues such as:

  • how police should interview child and adult complainants of child sexual abuse
  • what particulars a complainant of child sexual abuse should reasonably be expected to provide about the alleged abuse
  • whether particular features, such as inconsistencies in accounts given by a complainant over time, are a good indicator of unreliability
  • what assistance juries should be given in relation to assessing a complainant’s evidence.

Royal Commission CEO Philip Reed said this research and its accompanying standalone summary of guidance on memory in cases of child sexual abuse is intended to contribute to the development of guidance for lawyers, magistrates, judges, juries and police.

“This research may help contribute to the education of police and the legal profession on what child victims of sexual abuse can be expected to remember,” he said.

A Royal Commission report on Criminal Justice, to be released in coming months, will draw on this research and its implication for the criminal justice system.

The report will contain the Commissioners’ recommendations to reform the way the criminal justice system responds to child sexual abuse, including child sexual abuse in an institutional context.

Read the report.

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