The application of artificial intelligence algorithms in the justice system - for example to decide which offenders are eligible for alternatives to custodial sentences - will be among the first items on the agenda of a year-long investigation into the impact of technology opened by the Law Society. The Public Policy Technology and Law Commission - Algorithms in the Justice System, will meet in public three times, its chair Christina Blacklaws, who next month assumes the presidency of the Law Society, announced last night. 

The commmission’s formation reflects growing concern about the advent of so-called ’Schrodinger’s justice’ - in which decisions are taken by self-learning systems impervious to examination or challenge. Pressure group Big Brother Watch revealed yesterday that it has instructed human rights firm Leigh Day to take action against the Metropolitan Police over to demand the withdrawal of ’dangerously authoritarian’ automated technology for recognising faces at public events such as the Notting Hill Carnival.

Christina Blacklaws

Christina Blacklaws

Christina Blacklaws, vice president, Law Society

Blacklaws told an event at Chancery Lane last night that facial recognition systems in effect require ’a degree of privacy to be surrendered in return for a promise of greater security’ - but that the technology had so far failed to work. At last year’s Notting Hill Carnival ’the system was wrong 98% of the time, falsely telling officers on 102 occasions it had spotted a suspect’.

Recommendations for the regulation of algorithm-driven artificial intelligence are a possible outcome of the commission - though Blacklaws stressed that its members would approach the issue with an open mind.  Three public sessions over the rest of this year will collect evidence from citizens, law enforcement, academia, computer scientists and ethicists as well as the legal profession, she said. The other lead members are Sylvie Delacroix, professor in law and ethics at the University of Birmingham Law School and Sofia Olhede, professor at the Department of Statistical Science,University College London.

The first evidence session, scheduled for late July, will provide an insight into the current state of play with regards to the development, sale and use of algorithms in the justice system of England and Wales, Blacklaws said. 

In September a second session will consider the future of algorithms and the third ’will examine what a framework for algorithms in the justice system should look like’, Blacklaws said. The commission is provisionally scheduled to report in February next year. 

To help the discussion, the Law Society yesterday published a  ‘horizon scanning’ report on AI and the Legal Profession. It explores developments of the use of artificial intelligence in legal practice, such as document analysis and delivery, legal adviser support and case outcome prediction. ’Over the next few years there can be little doubt that AI will start to have a noticeable impact on the legal profession,’ Blacklaws said.