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School of Law

The Promise and Perils of Algorithms in Public Administration

Date: 3 February 2022

About this event

The dystopian future as presented in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 smash hit Minority Report, has police being able to pre-emptively intercept and detain people before they commit crimes based on data provided by clairvoyant psychics. But algorithmic systems that assist or even replace humans in decision making processes are no longer a matter of science fiction.

AI is increasingly shaping the way we are governed and how public goods and services are administered. Algorithms now influence everything from highlighting crime hotspots, to exam results, public procurement tenders, housing benefit allocations, immigration visa applications, and pothole repairs. However, the use of automation has often been remarkably opaque, with little public information about how and why public authorities procure, develop and use automated systems?

Proponents argue that the use of algorithms in public life can lead to more consistent outcomes by replacing and fallible human beings. However critics point to mounting evidence that far from being neutral pieces of technology, algorithmic systems often reflect the (un)conscious preferences, prejudices, and priorities of the people that build them. Even where software developers take great care to minimise any influence of their own prejudices, the date used to train an algorithm can be another significant source of bias.

To discuss these issues we were delighted to welcome a number of leading practitioners and academics working in this developing area of law. The event was chaired by Professor Alan Dignam, Professor of Corporate Law at Queen Mary University.

Professor Alan Dignam QC joined Queen Mary, University of London in 1998 . Alan’s major research interests are company law, corporate governance, the application of Constitutional Rights/Human Rights to corporations and the impact of Artificial Intelligence on Corporations. In 2020 he was appointed as one of only six Honorary Queen’s Counsel (QC Honoris Causa) granted that year.

Ciar McAndrew is a Barrister at Monkton Chambers. Her practice includes competition, information, EU, sports, tax, and administrative and public law. Ciar is regularly instructed both as junior and sole counsel and has appeared in a range of tribunals, including the Competition Appeal Tribunal, High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. She was recently junior counsel in a challenge to an algorithm used by the Home Office to categorise visa applicants on racially discriminatory grounds.

Claire Hall is a Solicitor and Strategic Litigation Lawyer at Child Poverty Action Group. Prior to this she was an Associate lawyer in the public Law disputes team at Herbert Smith Freehills. Claire is involved in bringing test cases, such as a recent challenge to HM Revenue & Customs’ refusal to accept a newly recognised refugee’s claim for backdated child tax credits covering the period since their asylum claim. She is currently undertaking academic research around the applicability of Judicial Review grounds to automated decision-making by public bodies.

Dr Joe Tomlinson is Senior Lecturer in Public Law at the University of York as well as a member of the Academic Panel at Blackstone Chambers. Joe’s research centres on administrative law and justice, and how it can be changed for the better. He explores how contemporary administrative justice systems operate in practice, often with an emphasis on policy problems or systemic issues. As part of this, he is also interested in how these systems are perceived and experienced in everyday life.

James Piotrowski is an attorney in the United States, practicing labor and employment law since 1994. Currently managing partner in Herzfeld & Piotrowski, LLP, which is a union-side labor law firm. As well as labor and employment litigation, James also specialises in administrative and constitutional law focused on litigation of constitutional claims.

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