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Social Sciences

The Construction of a Legal Framework for the Property of the Mentally Ill in Nineteenth-Century England

1 October 2010 - 30 September 2011

PI/s in Exeter: Professor Chantal Stebbings

Funding awarded: £ 4,019

Sponsor(s): British Academy

About the research

This project investigated the nature of the protection given by the law to the property of the mentally ill in the nineteenth century, in order to establish its scope, efficacy and influence on modern law.

This law was developed when the numbers of the mentally ill grew rapidly. It consisted of two parallel jurisdictions – the statutory Lunacy Commission, which was the bureaucratic organ of government, and the courts. The wealthy and the destitute patients were provided for by the law, but the property of those of modest means was not addressed by either system. As the two systems operated within the dynamic context of increasing centralisation and ideological friction, conflicts and omissions in jurisdiction arose.

This project assessed the response of the courts to the social, political and medical imperatives in providing for the safeguarding of patients’ property from misappropriation. It explored whether developments in psychiatric medicine influenced this response and the subsequent formulation of the law relating to property ownership and control by the mentally ill.