The ad hoc use of complex algorithms in the justice system needs urgent oversight, the Law Society of England and Wales said as it released the results of a year-long investigation.
The Law Society Technology and Law Policy Commission publishes its report on algorithms in criminal justice alongside an interactive map that allows the public to see for the first time the beginnings of an overview of where algorithms are being used to assist decision-making across the justice system across England and Wales.
“Police, prisons and border forces are innovating in silos to help them manage and use the vast quantities of data they hold about people, places and events,” said Law Society president Christina Blacklaws.
“Complex algorithms are crunching data to help officials make judgement calls about all sorts of things – from where to send a bobby on the beat to who is at risk of being a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence; who to pick out of a crowd, let out on parole or which visa application to scrutinise.
“While there are obvious efficiency wins, there is a worrying lack of oversight or framework to mitigate some hefty risks – of unlawful deployment, of discrimination or bias that may be unwittingly built in by an operator.
“These dangers are exacerbated by the absence of transparency, centralised coordination or systematic knowledge-sharing between public bodies. Although some forces are open about their use of algorithms, this is by no means uniform.”
The Law Society’s key recommendations:
- Oversight: A legal framework for the use of complex algorithms in the justice system. The lawful basis for the use of any algorithmic systems must be clear and explicitly declared
- Transparency: A national register of algorithmic systems used by public bodies
- Equality: The public sector equality duty is applied to the use of algorithms in the justice system
- Human rights: Public bodies must be able to explain what human rights are affected by any complex algorithm they use
- Human judgement: There must always be human management of complex algorithmic systems
- Accountability: Public bodies must be able to explain how specific algorithms reach specific decisions
- Ownership: Public bodies should own software rather than renting it from tech companies and should manage all political design decisions
Christina Blacklaws added: “Within the right framework algorithmic systems – whether facial recognition technology, predictive policing or individual risk assessment tools – can deliver a range of benefits in the justice system, from efficiency and efficacy to accountability and consistency.
“We need to build a consensus rooted in the rule of law, which preserves human rights and equality, to deliver a trusted and reliable justice system now and for the future.
“The Law Society is grateful to professors Sofia Olhede and Sylvie Delacroix, whose expertise helped the Technology and Law Policy Commission formulate practical, specific recommendations for government and public bodies to minimise the risks and maximise the benefits of complex algorithms in the justice system.”
Notes to editors
View our map and see which police forces are using algorithms and for what
Read the Law Society Technology and Law Policy Commission report
About the Law Society
The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.
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