Introducing new research: measuring mental capacity

Dr Janet Weston, Research Fellow, introduces her three year Wellcome Trust fellowship entitled ‘Measuring Mental Capacity: A History’ .

Internationally and nationally, mental capacity is on the agenda. Formal assessments of mental capacity determine whether adults should make decisions regarding their own personal and financial lives, and this is increasingly controversial and complex. States find themselves having to consider in more explicit terms the rights and vulnerabilities of adults whose capacity to look after themselves may be limited. Numbers of those potentially affected are on the rise, as mental capacity assessments are usually prompted by impairments such as mental illness, learning disabilities, and dementia, all of which are affected by improvements in diagnosis and life expectancy.

Although recent flurries of consultations and legislation in Britain and Ireland surrounding mental capacity suggest a new phenomenon, the courts have been involved in assessing mental capacity for centuries. My new research project will use court proceedings alongside medical, legal, and advocacy material to consider how mental capacity has been measured, defined, and understood over the twentieth century. It will also compare the approaches of different jurisdictions in light of their particular legal, medical, and social contexts, with a focus on England & Wales and the Republic of Ireland.

I hope to think about how ideas and attitudes regarding disability, gender, old age, vulnerability, and rights have informed decisions and debates around mental capacity, as well as changes within medical knowledge and treatment. I will be paying particular attention to disputed wills, where the mental capacity of the will-maker is questioned, and the decisions of the Court of Protection (and its predecessors and equivalents) to take control of an individual’s finances. These proceedings cover a wide variety of circumstances and often include very detailed information about the lives, activities, and beliefs of those involved.

Although this project is still in its early stages, remarkable cases are already coming to light. One is the case of Miss Alexander, a housekeeper from Dorset, who inherited a modest fortune from her employer in the mid-1930s. Neighbours raised concerns that a disreputable local family had moved in with Miss Alexander and taken control of her newly acquired wealth, and the Court of Protection was appointed to manage her money. Miss Alexander’s diagnosis was simply that she was ‘without character and without courage’, and therefore succumbed too easily to bad influences. In another case, it was elderly Mr Park’s marriage to a much younger woman that raised alarm bells, and his physical frailty, advanced years, and readiness to marry were all given as evidence of mental weakness.

I’m looking forward to finding out more about Miss Alexander, Mr Park, and the decisions that were made about them and many others during the 1900s. Over the next three years, I’ll be visiting archives in London and Dublin, and perhaps also Belfast, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, and I also hope to engage with practitioners and legal scholars involved in matters of mental capacity today.