Category Archives: In court

Why using AI to sentence criminals is a dangerous idea

File 20170515 7005 ybtl2u
                                                                                       Phonlamai Photo/Shutterstock


In this guest post, PhD researcher Christopher Markou, University of Cambridge, explores the use of Artificial Intelligence in the justice system and asks whether the use of algorithms should be used to decide questions of guilt or innocence.

Artificial intelligence is already helping determine your future – whether it’s your Netflix viewing preferences, your suitability for a mortgage or your compatibility with a prospective employer. But can we agree, at least for now, that having an AI determine your guilt or innocence in a court of law is a step too far?

Worryingly, it seems this may already be happening. When American Chief Justice John Roberts recently attended an event, he was asked whether he could forsee a day “when smart machines, driven with artificial intelligences, will assist with courtroom fact finding or, more controversially even, judicial decision making”. He responded: “It’s a day that’s here and it’s putting a significant strain on how the judiciary goes about doing things”.

Roberts might have been referring to the recent case of Eric Loomis, who was sentenced to six years in prison at least in part by the recommendation of a private company’s secret proprietary software. Loomis, who has a criminal history and was sentenced for having fled the police in a stolen car, now asserts that his right to due process was violated as neither he nor his representatives were able to scrutinise or challenge the algorithm behind the recommendation.

The report was produced by a software product called Compas, which is marketed and sold by Nortpointe Inc to courts. The program is one incarnation of a new trend within AI research: ones designed to help judges make “better” – or at least more data-centric – decisions in court.

While specific details of Loomis’ report remain sealed, the document is likely to contain a number of charts and diagrams quantifying Loomis’ life, behaviour and likelihood of re-offending. It may also include his age, race, gender identity, browsing habits and, I don’t know … measurements of his skull. The point is we don’t know.

What we do know is that the prosecutor in the case told the judge that Loomis displayed “a high risk of violence, high risk of recidivism, high pretrial risk.” This is standard stuff when it comes to sentencing. The judge concurred and told Loomis that he was “identified, through the Compas assessment, as an individual who is a high risk to the community”.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court convicted Loomis, adding that the Compas report brought valuable information to their decision, but qualified it by saying he would have received the same sentence without it. But how can we know that for sure? What sort of cognitive biases are involved when an all-powerful “smart” system like Compas suggests what a judge should do? Continue reading

Case Preview: PNM v Times Newspapers, Open justice and the privacy of suspects – Hugh Tomlinson QC

In this guest post, Hugh Tomlinson QC previews an appeal to the Supreme Court in a case that considers where the balance lies between rights to privacy and the principle of open justice. The post was first published on the Inforrm blog

On 17 and 18 January 2017, a seven judge Supreme Court will hear the claimant’s appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of PNM v Times Newspapers ([2014] EWCA Civ 1132).

That Court had upheld the judge’s view that, on the basis of the “open justice principle”, information mentioned in open court concerning a person who was arrested but not charged could be reported.  


The claimant was one of a number of men arrested in March 2012 in connection with a Thames Valley Police investigation into allegations of child sex grooming and prostitution.  The claimant was released on bail and was subsequently notified that he was to be released without charge.

Nine men were charged and a criminal trial took place at the Central Criminal Court between January and May 2013.  The claimant was not a party or witness at the criminal trial.  On 25 January 2013 order under section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 was made prohibiting publication of any report which referred to evidence which may identify or tend to identify him.

On 14 May 2013, seven of the defendants were convicted of numerous serious sexual offences.  A further order under section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 was made on the claimant’s application.  It prohibited disclosure of details of applications made to the Court by Thames Valley Police (which concerned certain of the claimant’s property).

The claimant’s full name was mentioned in open court when a police officer said that a witness had failed to pick him out on an identification parade.  He was also mentioned in the course of cross-examination, in speeches and in the summing up.

At the conclusion of the criminal trial the Judge declined to discharge the section 4(2) order until the decision was made as to whether the claimant would be charged.  In July 2013 the police notified the claimant that he was not going to be charged.   The Times and the Oxford Mail applied to discharge the section 4(2) but, before he had handed down his ruling, the claimant applied to the High Court for an injunction.

By an application made on 15 October 2013 against the Times, the Oxford Mail and two journalists, the claimant sought an order to prevent publication of the fact of his arrest on suspicion of committing serious sexual offences against children and associated information because of the fear of the damage such publications may cause to him and his family, including his children.

Continue reading

The Body of Law: An exhibition of drawings by Isobel Williams

Isobel artThe Supreme Court welcomes and informs the public, but how does an artist interpret the coded theatre of the hearings?

Isobel William’s new exhibition of drawings, sketched from the public seats of the Supreme Court with the court’s permission, and other locations, offers an unusual perspective on the workings of open justice.

The exhibition includes her impressions of cases concerning image rights, the extent of the Terrorism Act and the Naked Rambler, for example.

Isobel’s work is being displayed at Senate House in June and July. The exhibition is free to the public and can be found on the 2nd floor.

The exhibition is part of the public engagement programme at the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies exploring and promoting the ‘humanity of law’, that is exploring law’s place in the arts and humanities, and role in shaping society and culture. The Information Law and Policy Centre has been involved in a number of IALS events on this theme exploring the work of judges and barristers.

We have previously featured Isobel’s work on the blog, documenting her 2014 exhibition at Pinsent Masons LLP and her drawings of the Information, Law and Policy Centre launch event.

You can find out more information about Isobel’s drawings on her blog and on her website.

A  guide to the exhibition can be found here (PDF).

Visiting the exhibition:
This exhibition will be on during June and July, Mon-Fri 9am-5.45pm, Sat 9.45am-5.15pm, 2nd floor foyer, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU 

Being Human: The humanity of lawyers – 19 November 2015

As a follow on to last year’s successful ‘Humanity of Judging‘ event at the Supreme Court, the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies is pleased to announce its ‘Humanity of Lawyers‘ event, as part of the second Being Human festival,  the national festival of the humanities.

It focuses on the work of barristers and is kindly being hosted by Inner Temple and with the support of the School of Advanced Study Public Engagement Innovators’ fund. Additionally, we will have mini-display of materials in the lobby at the IALS (17 Russell Square) from mid-November until the end of December.

The full details for the event at Inner Temple are below. It is free to attend, but booking is required. We have just released some more tickets but we do expect this event to book up. Please cancel your ticket on Eventbrite if you find you can’t attend after all, so we can release it to someone else.

The humanity of lawyers

Thursday 19 November | 18:00–20:00

Parliament Chamber at Inner Temple,
Inner Temple,

Book now

Barristers carry out much of their work in public courtrooms, clearly identifiable in wig and gown, yet much of their professional lives and culture remain hidden from public view. This event seeks to explore how barristers perform their role.  How do they manage their own personal beliefs and emotions? What ethical considerations guide them? How do they balance their own humanity with the complexity of their task in representing others?

Through an evening discussion in the Parliament Chamber at Inner Temple, a public audience will be given an insight into barristers’ professional lives and an opportunity to engage with practitioners and scholars who study them.

Joining us for this discussion:

  • Mavis Maclean CBE, Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford and Honorary Bencher of Middle Temple
  • Professor Andy Boon, professor in law at City Law School, City University London
  • Caoilfhionn Gallagher, barrister, Doughty Street Chambers
  • Martin Forde QC, barrister, One Crown Office Row

Chair: Atalanta Goulandris, PhD researcher, Department of Sociology, City University London

Additionally, the evening will feature a special video contribution from Dr Justine Rogers, lecturer at the University of New South Wales, Australia, whose research considers lawyers’ identities and wellbeing, legal ethics and ethical decision-making, and the changes to the legal professions. The discussion is followed by a wine reception.

A small exhibition of library materials in the lobby of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies will complement this event.

Free Admission | Booking required
Part of the School of Advanced Study’s ‘Hidden and Revealed’ series of events

Can resolving disputes online deliver better access to justice?

Professor Richard Susskind OBE is well known within the legal profession for his numerous books predicting a dramatic transformation in legal practice, and calling for an overhaul of 21st century lawyering.

In February 2015 he made national headlines for his proposed eBay-style scheme for online dispute resolution (ODR) and the recommendation that HMCTS introduce a new, internet-based court service, known as HM Online Court (HMOC), to be launched in 2017. As Chair of the Civil Justice Council’s ODR Advisory Group and IT Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice, he had been tasked with finding a way to resolve low-level civil claims more cheaply.

An article by Judith Townend in the September issue of the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers sets out the main points of the report and considers the initial reactions to the scheme, its practical workability and the likelihood of its implementation. The article has also been published on Legal Voice and the Inforrm blog.

Q&A with Professor Katherine Biber – legal scholar, historian and criminologist

Katherine-BiberProfessor Katherine Biber is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, where her research explores the handling of criminal evidence outside the courtroom and after the conclusion of a trial. On 11th June she will take part in the Illicit Images workshop at the IALS, speaking on  “Redacted readymades: art from bureaucratic secrets”.

She kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her work….

Tell us a bit about yourself and your work ….
I am a legal scholar, historian and criminologist at the University of Technology Sydney, in Australia. My research focuses on criminal evidence, particularly visual evidence. I study that way that photographs and other visual sources are used and interpreted within the legal process, and also how evidentiary materials continue to proliferate outside of, and after, the trial.

How does your work relate to information/communication law and policy?
Some of my research looks at principles and practices of open justice. It investigates the processes by which users might access evidentiary materials from courts. I have found that whilst some of this material is released following a judicial decision – where the principles of open justice might be considered explicitly – a great deal of this material is released in the shadow of the law. It might be released by court registrars, court information officers, court media officers, or by some other kind of processes, which are highly variable, and which are also very difficult to research.

What have you done while you have been at the IALS? What have been the most valuable activities?
I have been working on a book manuscript. I am writing a book [provisionally] titled In Crime’s Archive: The Cultural Afterlife of Evidence, due to be published by Routledge in 2016. I’ve been speaking to curators, scholars, artists, playwrights, poets, lawyers and judges about how criminal evidentiary material continues to ‘live’ after its probative value has expired. I’ve been attending exhibitions and events, as London is an incredibly rich and inspiring place to see creative and curatorial work.

Tell us about the Illicit Images event and what that’s about ….
Illicit Images is an opportunity for four scholars to have a dialogue about how legal images might be examined and understood. Each of us draws upon a different group of images from specific times and places, and each of us will set out some of the questions raised for legal and cultural scholarship by ‘difficult’ images. These are questions about the making of these images, their display, their manipulation and how their meanings might change with the passage of time. Three of the speakers are legal scholars, and one (Peter Doyle) is a curator, crime fiction author, musician and media scholar. It will be a lively event, and one that I hope is the beginning of a longer conversation.

What are your future plans for research?
I am starting to think about writing a legal biography of Jimmy Governor. Governor was an Aboriginal farm worker who, in 1900, murdered white women and children on the Australian frontier. His capture and trial, immediately before Australian Federation, marks his experience of the criminal process as very unusual and distinctive. I am interested in tracing the extent to which Federation provides a context for interpreting his crimes, his capture, his trial, his appeal, and his eventual execution.

Thank you!

For further details about Professor Biber’s work please see her profile at UTS. Sign up for the Illicit Images workshop, organised by the IALS in collaboration with Birkeck, University of London, here.

Drawing from the public seats at the Supreme Court: ‘I see paintings and human beings’

Last week I was fortunate to attend a private view of Isobel Williams’ drawings from the UK Supreme Court, which are currently on display at Pinsent Masons LLP, near Liverpool Street. Followers of Williams’ work will know that she shares an alternative view from court. She does not offer the type of court sketches we’re used to, the sort drawn from memory and for the purposes of news reporting.

low res PM copy[1]Instead she captures the non newsworthy detail: an usher, a judge typing (pen in mouth), the portraits on display. The colours and style are unusual too.  Her current exhibition includes outlines of barristers, the judges visible through their translucent figures. She reflects and describes on her blog, poetically:

People shifting on the leather-upholstered public benches make them creak like a sailing ship. A girl in front of me has long swishy hair. My pen and brush swish on the textured paper, in her ear. She doesn’t know she is hearing the rhythm of her hair being drawn … Around the court, the Apple logo comes over loud and clear (5 November 2014)

Her approach has a relevance to the study of information law and policy, and a sub-theme of access to courts and courts communication: in ordinary courts sketches from within the courtroom are not permitted; there is a blanket ban, just as there is for taking photos or filming.  The Supreme Court is different: there is no specific legislation that prohibits this activity, and with the court’s special permission Williams occasionally draws, from the public seats and unobtrusively. In turn, she has kindly given permission for me to share some of the images from her exhibition. Below the gallery, she offers further reflections on her work:

Isobel Williams: Questions I am asked about the Supreme Court include:

Where is it? (Ask cabbies for the Middlesex Guildhall if you’re in a hurry.)

What was the jury like? (There is none.)

Can the public attend hearings? (Yes)

Do you have to a) book or b) queue to get into hearings? (a) No, b) not in my experience – it’s for spotters and purists, not for the tricoteuses who frequent the Old Bailey for the murder.)

Sometimes, when I tell barristers that I hang around the SC a bit, they make a sour face. This came as no surprise to my niece, a barrister. ‘It’s about fear and envy,’ she said.

So why do I occasionally haunt the public seats, a Miss Flite with drawing materials, trying to be as small, unobtrusive and noiseless as possible, writing a stream-of-consciousness blog to accompany my illustrations of the passing scene? (In another context, someone said of me: ‘She sits there like a little mouse, and gets us.’)

I have a history of attaching myself to locations – under the A40, the Occupy protest camps, Crisis at Christmas, band rehearsals. I observe from a position of detachment in a place where drawing is not the point.

The court is also a building with a history and an art collection. It was built as art nouveau gothic; it accumulated awkward interior growths over time; the conversion to the Supreme Court restored daylight and produced courtrooms with everyone on the same level (read Hugh Feilden’s masterly account of that process in The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom: History, Art, Architecture, edited by Chris Miele, a beautiful illustrated book available from the court).

So what do you see from the public seats? I’d say that’s down to you. Every response will be different. Some of the tourists who wander in are clearly stricken by a primitive fear, as are some of the lawyers. I see suits, a few bespoke (they fit properly, with a kind of fluidity), most not (the padding tries to stay put when the wearer moves). I see nervous hands clenching and unclenching behind a QC’s back, out of sight of the bench. The exposure can look very lonely. I see paintings and human beings.

The Supreme Court takes its aim of open justice very seriously. It welcomes and educates the public. We are all invited to examine what goes on in our own way. I am not a court artist. I am not a lawyer. But I am a tax-payer (ergo, subsidising the court) who occasionally spends time with adults of working age who are not tax-payers, and I don’t mean non-doms. We are all consumers of the legal system even if we are not consumed by it. I take a tangential look at something which is open to everybody.

I censor myself in what I say, in what I draw, and in how I draw it. It’s a court. Is scandalising the court still an offence? I don’t want to learn the hard way.

Isobel Williams’ exhibition of Supreme Court drawings is currently at Pinsent Masons LLP, 30 Crown Place, Earl St, London EC2A 4ES, office hours Mon-Fri. She can be found on Twitter: @otium_catulle and blogs at A guide to the exhibition is available here [PDF]. All images copyright of Isobel Williams.

Relevant links: