Measuring mental capacity: a history

Funder: Wellcome Trust
Date: 1st March 2018 – 28th February 2021
Principal Investigator: Professor Virginia Berridge
Staff:  Dr Janet Weston

Description: Formal assessments of mental capacity determine whether adults should make decisions regarding their own personal and financial lives, and are usually prompted by the presence of impairments such as mental illness, learning disabilities, and dementia. The courts of Britain and Ireland have been involved in assessing mental capacity for centuries, whether to appoint guardians or to overrule specific decisions made when capacity was absent.

This research project uses these legal proceedings alongside medical, legal, and advocacy material to consider how mental capacity has been assessed, defined, and understood over the twentieth century. It examines the impact of changing medical knowledge and changing attitudes towards disability and old age over the 1900s, and considers how ideas about vulnerability, autonomy, and rights have affected decisions about how and when an individual’s mental capacity should be measured.