Measuring mental capacity: a history


  • Dr Janet Weston

    London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, United Kingdom

Project summary

Over the twentieth century, the Court of Protection was responsible for adults in England & Wales who were found 'incapable of managing their own affairs'. Tens of thousands of people, including individuals with learning disabilities, mental illness, and the elderly were in this position by the 1920s, and their numbers were growing. Despite its considerable power over so many, and current controversies over mental capacity assessments and legislation, the role of the Court of Protection is little understood.

In this project, I will engage with adults in England & Wales with and without experience of incapacitating conditions, to explore how decisions about an individual's capacity have been, are, and could be made. This project will involve three workshops involving people affected by dementia, using archival material from the Court of Protection to explore past decisions about mental incapacity and the issues they raise. This will generate an interactive play based on historical case studies, in which audiences are invited to say how they would respond to actual past events, and to discuss present policies and hypothetical futures. A version of the play will also be filmed, to expand and continue the discussion in new settings. This will connect my historical research with contemporary opinions and concerns, providing insight into current perceptions of mental incapacity and its associated legal mechanisms, past and present. It will also increase public understanding of the Court of Protection, helping me and my audiences to think about legal and social responses to infirmity and vulnerability.