The potential of automated document assembly: the case of disability benefits

England and Wales has two national general advice agencies operating digitally, Citizens Advice and AdviceNow, as well as a number of bodies like the Child Poverty Action Group. which in their specialist fields cover some of the same ground. To those of a bureaucratic or frame of mind, this might be an invitation to rationalisation. But, comparison between the sites reveals some of the benefits of competition. In particular, AdviceNow – the minnow, David or Apple – can sometimes show Citizens Advice – the whale, Goliath or Microsoft – a thing of two and open up a genuinely innovative approach. And so it is in the field of disability benefits.

The initiative that sparks the comparison is that AdviceNow have now posted two user-completed forms for claimants of disability benefits – a world of detail and dismay that you would not want to enter if you had any choice. To have enough information to understand the sites, you need to know three things. First, the government is revamping disability benefits and, in the course of doing that, reducing entitlement. This is part of a major retrenchment of social security benefits estimated by the House of Commons library to have saved around 10 per cent of what would have been spent between 2010 and 2016 and to promise savings of15 per cent up to 2021.

Second, cuts to entitlement have not been administered with sensitivity. This is a comment on Mumsnet, a discussion group aimed at mothers on the assessment of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for a child: it started a thread of 150 further messages: ‘My 12 year old can not walk more then a few yards before either falling over or needing to stop because he’s in pain. He finds walking up stairs painful … he can’t fasten/undo buttons because his fingers become painful so he has to have help so that he can go to the toilet. According to the [Department of Work and Pensions] he’s not entitled to DLA because he can actually walk … How disabled does a child have to be to get this??’ She subsequently adds: ‘He gets so tired and is in so much pain that he can’t walk home, I need to pay for taxis for him as I can’t drive. I also have to take him to school because he falls into the road. He doesn’t play outside’. She receives the no doubt sage advice that ‘there is a special way of filling in the forms’ and that ‘it is worth appealing’. She provides a good illustration of a wider frustration at the refusal of a benefit to which, prima facie, she would seem entitled.

Third, the Department of Work of Pensions has largely removed the right of appeal from decisions of this kind. Instead, your case undergoes ‘mandatory reconsideration’. This is widely seen as an assault on welfare rights hard won over the last thirty years. However, it opens up the possibility of an informal way forward in cases of benefit refusal.

Mandatory reconsideration provides the context for two self-completing document assembly tools produced by AdviceNow. The first was originally published last year and revised in May of this. It related to a benefit known as a Personal Independence Payment or PIP. AdviceNow reported that ,at the time of publication of its new version, its tool had just over 70,000 visitors in the previous year and had drafted 7,845 personalised letters. The second, released this month, relates to DLA.

The tools send an email with a draft letter to the user. They also allow a directly downloaded copy which – alas – my Mac mashed up unreadably. The email, however, was perfectly OK. It introduced itself thus:

Here’s copy of your personalised Mandatory Reconsideration request. Copy and paste it into a letter and make any changes or additions you want to there. When you are finished, print it off and post it to the address of the DWP office on the letter. Make a note of the date you send it, just in case anything goes wrong. Keep a copy – if the DWP do not change the decision, you should ask for an appeal. You can use the same wording on your appeal form. Most decisions aren’t changed at this stage, but are changed when you go to appeal. Good luck.

By contrast, the Citizens Advice coverage of DLA for children gives the following advice on a mandatory reconsideration letter: ‘

You need to write the reasons specific to your child’s claim and why you disagree with the decision. Look at your decision letter. It will say how the DWP has decided on your application. Make a note of the statements you disagree with and why.  In your reconsideration letter, give facts, examples and medical evidence (if available) to support what you’re saying. One way to be clear about what you disagree with is to use the same words that they use in the decision. Below is an example of what a reconsideration request letter might say. Every reconsideration request letter will be different – yours needs to contain examples that are specific to your child’s needs as a unique individual.

Example

Your letter says I’m not entitled to DLA because my child doesn’t need continual supervision to avoid substantial damage to himself or others. This is incorrect. When my child is at home I have to be in the same room with him at all times because he can hurt himself when I’m not there to watch him. He often throws fits – in the past he has knocked heavy things off shelves and hit his head on furniture. This could cause him substantial damage. He needs continual supervision to avoid damage to himself.”

The site also advises a degree of caution: ‘It’s possible that you could end up with less DLA than you were originally awarded, or nothing at all. However, many people have their original decision overturned. We recommend that you get help from Citizens Advice if you’re about to challenge a decision.’  The Citizens Advice site offers an online chat facility.

The Citizens Advice substantive information on the benefit is sound; accessible; the example very clear; and the warning is useful. It should be noted that AdviceNow have a specific guide for parents and carers on ‘how to win a DLA appeal’.

The point, however, is not to compare content but approach – and potential. In relation to this, Americans may be familiar with a2j author, a programme that allows the drafting of a user-completed document assembly.  It has assembled 2 million documents since 2015. A2j author incorporates a visual element and takes the form of a ‘guided interview’: it has, however, largely been used in relation to the preparation of court documents. You could imagine something similar being developed from AdviceNow’s letter. Alternatively, an entrepreneur like Joshua Browder would take AdivceNow’s letter; stick the content into a bot; and announce the end of lawyers. That would be unsustainable hype but both potential developments highlight the possibilities of the interactivity indicated by the smaller of the two jurisdiction wide advice institutions. Self-completed document assembly will not help all benefit claimants – but if one very basic programme helped 8,000 last year and presumably more this year – then it surely represents a significant addition to the armoury of otherwise disadvantaged benefit claimants.

 

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