The Evolution Of Mental Health Law


A Timeline History of the Acts Of Parliament affecting the evolution of mental health. The creation and demise of the lunatic asylum.

King George 111 

George 3, c.96 1808 County Asylums Act
Royal Assent 23.6.1808
An Act for the better Care and Maintenance of Lunatics, being Paupers or Criminals in England
“Whereas the practice of confining such lunatics and other insane persons as are chargeable to their respective parishes in Gaols, Houses of Correction, Poor Houses and Houses of Industry, is highly dangerous and inconvenient”, County JPs were given powers to construct asylums.

George 3, c.79 1811 Marriage of Lunatics Act
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act
George 3, c.79 1811 County Asylums Amendment Act
1812: Collinson’s two volume A Treatise on the Law concerning Idiots, Lunatics…
George 3, c.46 1815 County Asylums Amendment Act
George 3, c.117 1815 Criminal Lunatics Amendment Act
George 3, c.66 1819 Cotton Mills and Factories Act prohibited children under nine from working in cotton mills, and restricted those over nine to a 12 hour day.
George 3, c.127 1819 Pauper Lunatics Act

King George 1V
George 4, c.64 1823 Prisons Act
George 4, c.71 1824 County Asylums Amendment Act
George 4, c.40 1828 County Asylums Act
George 4, c.41 1828 Madhouses Act
Royal Assent for both on 15.7.1828
George 4, c.68 1828 Chancery Lunatics Property Act
“An Act for extending the Acts passed in the forty-third and fifty- ninth years of the reign of his late majesty King George the third, for the sale of mortgages of estates of persons found lunatics by inquisition taken in England and Ireland, so as to authorise such sale and mortgage for some purposes; and for rendering Inquisitions on Commissions of Lunacy taken in England available in Ireland, and like Inquisitions taken in Ireland available in England”
George 4, c.18 1829 Madhouses Law Amendment Act Royal Assent 14.5.1829 10
surpluses after the payment of expenses. As a result “considerable sums arising from the said balances are now in the possession of Clerks of the Peace for several counties of England and Wales”
William 1V
William 4, c. 65 1830 Property Act
“An Act for consolidating and amending the Laws relating to property belonging to infants, femes covert, idiots, lunatics, and persons of unsound mind”. Royal Assent 23.7.1830
William 4, c. 107 1832 Madhouses Act
Royal Assent 11.8.1832
William 4, c. 75 1832 Anatomy Act
Allowed workhouses and hospitals to sell unclaimed bodies to accredited anatomy schools. Put a stop to the trade of the “resurrectionists” who robbed graves.
1833: First edition of Shelford’s Treatise on the Law concerning Lunatics…

William 4, c. 36 1833 Chancery Lunatics Act
“An Act to diminish the inconvenience and expense of Commissions in the Nature of Writs De Lunatico inquirendo; and to provide for the better care and treatment of idiots, lunatics, and persons of unsound mind found such by inquisition” Royal Assent 24.7.1833. [This Act added to by 1842 Chancery Lunatics Act, repealed by 1853 Chancery Lunatics Act]
Section two: Lord Chancellor could appoint “Visitors”: two physicians and a barrister of 5 years standing: salaries not above £500 a year (physicians); £300 a year (other visitor). Section three: Chancery Lunatics to be visited once a year by a physician visitor. Section seven: A Secretary (£300) Offices and expenses (£30)
William 4, c. 64 1833 Madhouses Law Amendment Act
Royal Assent 28.8.1833.
William 4, c. 22 1835 Madhouses Law Continuation Act
Queen Victoria
Victoria c. 73 1838 Madhouses Law Continuation Act
Victoria c. 73 1838 Irish Criminal Lunatics Act
Victoria c. 54 1840 Insane Prisoners Act
Allowed the transfer of prisoners to asylums, including prisoners sentenced to death
Victoria c. 4 1841 Madhouses Law Continuation Act
Royal Assent 5.10.1841
The 1842 Poor Law Act and lunatics

Victoria c. 84 1842 Chancery Lunatics Act An Act to alter and amend the practice a courses of proceedings under commissions in the nature of writs de lunaticao inquirendo Royal Assent 15.8.1842. Eight pages. Provided (section 1) for the appointment of two “Commissioners in Lunacy” who were to be Serjeants or Barristers of not less than ten years standing. By section four, the commissioners were to be ex-officio Visitors under the 1833 Act. They were to be paid a yearly salary of £2,000 (section 13) and had the possibility of a pension (section 15). By section ten, the office of Clerk of the Custodies of Lunatics and idiots was abolished. The duties were to be performed by the Secretary of Lunatics. By Section nine, Officers, clerks and messengers were to be determined by the Lord Chancellor and the Treasury, and by section 14, wages were fixed by the Lord Chancellor.

[This Act added to the 1833 Chancery Lunatics Act. All except sections 10, 12 and 16 repealed by 1853 Chancery Lunatics Act] “the Lord Chancellor was authorised to appoint two barristers called “the Commissioners in Lunacy” to whom all writs de lunatico inquirendo were to be addressed, and who should perform the duties then performed by the Commissioners named in commissions in the writ… It was previously the practice to refer all matters connected with the persons and estates of the lunatic, after he was found so under commission, to the ordinary Masters in Chancery. All inquisitions were still held before a jury.” (Tuke, D.H. 1882 p.291)
By a General Order under this statute, dated 27.10.1842, Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst “abolished the office of Clerk of the Custody and transferred his duties and also those the duties as to lunatics of the Masters in Ordinary in Chancery to the two newly established Commissioners”. (Keely, T.S. 1944 p.196)

Victoria c. 87 1842 Lunacy Inquiry Act
Victoria c. 100 1845 Lunacy Act Royal Assent 4.8.1845.
Victoria c. 126 1845 County Asylums Act Royal Assent 8.8.1845.

1845: Lumley’s The New Lunacy Acts…
Victoria c. 84 1846 County Asylums Amendment Act
Victoria c. 95 1846 County Courts Act
Victoria c. 43 1847 County Asylums Amendment Act

Victoria c. 63 1848 Public Health Act created a new central department, the General Board of Health under a nominated president, and provided for local boards of health to be set up; in municipal boroughs these were to be the town councils, elsewhere they were to be special boards elected by the rate payers on the same footing as the election of boards of guardians. Each board of health was empowered to appoint a surveyor, an inspector of nuisances, a treasurer, a clerk and an “officer of health” who had to be a legally qualified medical practitioner. The appointment of the officer of health and his removal was subject to the approval of the General Board of Health. The Act contained numerous sanitary clauses including the cleansing of sewers, sanitation of houses, supervision of lodging houses and slaughter-houses, and maintenance of pavements. The General Board had no system and no powers to enforce effective local action where the clauses of the Act were not adopted locally. This is the first act in which the term “public health” appears. The act did not cover London or Scotland;

London operated under the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers Act
1850 State Trials (New Series) Vol.8 Case of Robert Pate.
Victoria c. 87 1852 Court of Chancery Act
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act

Victoria c. 70 1853 Chancery Lunatics Act
Established the Board on a statutory basis. It repealed the parts of an 1833 Act (cap.84 relating to the office of The Secretary of Lunatics. Section 10 refers to “Masters and the Registrar” continuing to perform duties previously entrusted to Clerk of Custodies.
“A Registrar in Lunacy had been established between 1845 and 1853. His appointment was legalised by the Act of 1853 (s. 10). The Registrar had offices in Quality Court and a separate staff; it was his duty to attend the hearing of cases in Court, to register reports and to draw orders; he was the successor to the Secretary to Lunatics, and, as such, had to deal with the correspondence arising from periodical reports. He also took over from the Clerk of the Custodies a large mass of old papers in Lunacy matters, some of which, as was stated by J. Lowry Whittle, the Registrar in 1882, went back to the days of Lord Clarendon. As a result of Sir George Jessel’s Committee in 1882 the office of Registrar was abolished by the Orders of 1883, and from that time Orders in Lunacy have been drawn by or under the directions of the Masters in Lunacy. The Registrar’s salary was £1,500 a year, which was this saved to the State. … Upon the abolition of the Registrar’s Office his clerks were transferred to the Office of the Masters.” (Theobald, H.S. 1924, pages 111 and 112. Quotation supplied by Denzil Lush)

Victoria c. 96 1853 Lunacy Amendment Act An Act to amend an Act passed in the ninth year of Her Majesty, “for the regulation of the care and treatment of lunatics” Royal Assent 20.8.1853. Thirty nine sections plus schedules. Amended the 1845 Lunacy Act

Victoria c. 97 1853 County Asylums Act Official short title (section 136): The Lunatic Asylums Act, 1853. An Act to consolidate and amend the laws for the provision and regulation of lunatic asylums for counties and boroughs, and for the maintenance and care of pauper lunatics in England. Royal Assent 20.8.1853. One hundred and thirty six sections plus schedules. Repealed and replaced the 1845 County Asylums Act, the 1846 County Asylums Amendment Act and the 1847 County Asylums Amendment Act.
1854: Archbold’s The New Statutes Relating to Lunacy

1858: The Law concerning Lunatics, Idiots, and persons of unsound mind by Charles Palmer Phillips
Victoria c. 75 1860 Criminal Lunatics Asylums Act
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act
Victoria c. 86 1862 Chancery Lunatics Act
“Lord Westbury’s Chancery Lunatics Act”
The official short title is Lunacy Regulation Act 1862
Royal Assent 7.8.1862

section 23: “The Lord Chancellor may, if he shall think fit, on a petition presented to him for that purpose, order annuities, not exceeding one half of their respective salaries, to be paid to the present medical visitors or either of them, in case they or either of them shall be desirous of retiring from the offices held by them, they having already attained the respective ages of seventy-eight and eighty-one years, and having served as such medical visitors for twenty-eight and twenty years respectively”

Victoria c. 111 1862 Lunacy Amendment Act
Amongst other things appears to have aimed at the movement of chronic patients out of crowded asylums into workhouses to make room for others. It gave the Lunacy Commission power to order the transfer of lunatics from workhouses to asylums at the same time as giving local asylum visitors and poor law guardians the power to provide for a limited number of chronic lunatics in workhouses. (Hodgkinson, R. 1967 p.586)

Victoria c.85 1864 Contagious Diseases Act
Allowed for the compulsory medical examination of “common prostitutes” in garrison towns and ten miles around, in an attempt to contain venereal diseases.

Victoria c.6 1867 Metropolitan Poor Act “An Act for the establishment in the Metropolis of Asylums for the Sick, Insane, and other classes of the poor, and of dispensaries, and for the distribution over the Metropolis of portions of the charge for poor relief, and for other purposes relating to poor relief in the Metropolis” Royal Assent 29.3.1867

“One result of the Act was not contemplated. Because the cost of lunatics not retained in workhouses was to be paid out of the new Common Poor Fund, Guardians transferred every lunatic, for whom they could get a Medical Officer to certify, without thought of expense or propriety. When the London asylums were filled, the local Poor Law authorities sent their cases to other towns often very far away, so that the cost of removal was great. Injustice was inflicted on Poor Law Unions which had provided special accommodation for imbeciles and were keeping them at their own expense. The Poor Law Board realised that the metropolitan cases were being sent into other counties and that real supervision was out of the question. Legally however, the Board could do nothing to control or prohibit the development. They hoped that the completion of the two new asylums would enable lunatics to be brought back to the London neighbourhood so that costs might be reduced and the patients be more accessible to their relatives and friends.” (Hodgkinson, R. 1966 pp 151-152)

Victoria c.107 1870 Census of England Act section 4 “Schedules shall be prepared… with particulars of the name, sex, age, rank, profession or occupation, condition, relation to head of family, and birthplace of every living person… and also whether any were blind, or deaf and dumb, or imbecile or lunatic;…” (See 1871)
1877: Second edition of Archbold’s Lunacy
Victoria c.19 1879 Habitual Drunkards Act
subsequent Acts were known as Inebriates Acts
section 3(b) defined an habitual drunkard as a person who, not being amenable to any jurisdiction in lunacy, is notwithstanding, by reason of habitual intemperate drinking of intoxicating liquor, at times dangerous to himself or herself or to others, or incapable of managing himself or herself or his or her affairs. It made control easier and allowed local authorities to set up retreats.
Victoria c.82 1882 Lunacy Regulation Amendment Act
Victoria c.38 1883 Trial of Lunatics Act
A minor modification by the 1959 Mental Health Act
Victoria c.64 1884 Criminal Lunatics Act
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act (with respect to England and Wales)
Victoria c.52 1885 Lunacy Act
Victoria c. 16 1886 Lunacy (Vacation of Seats) Act
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act
Victoria c.25 1886 Idiots Act
Victoria c.19 1888 Inebriates Act
Amended and renewed the 1879 Act indefinitely.
Victoria, c.41 1888 Local Government Act
County and County Borough Councils were created to take over local administration (apart from justice) from the justices of the peace. Amongst other matters, they became responsible for asylums under the lunacy and county asylums Acts. The Act introduced local democracy at county level, in that the councillors were elected by ratepayers. Unmarried women who were ratepayers were allowed to vote. The Act came into effect in 1889.
Victoria c.41 1889 Lunatics Law Amendment Act
“An Act to amend the Acts relating to Lunatics” Royal Assent 26.8.1889. 48 pages
This Act brought in the changes (see 1888 Lunacy Acts Amendment Bill) that were incorporated in the 1890 Act.
Victoria c. 5 1890 Lunacy Act
Entirely a consolidation Act, but it incorporated changes to the law introduced by the 1889 Lunatics Law Amendment Act, which I have outlined under the 1888 Lunacy Acts Amendment Bill)
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act
1890: Third edition of Archbold’s Lunacy
Victoria c.57 1891 Lunacy Act
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act
Victoria c.xx Lancashire County (Lunatic Asylums and other Powers) Local Act
Repealed by 1902 Lancsashire County (Lunatic Asylums) Local Act (c.lvi), s.4(1) and the County of 1984 Lancashire Local Act (c.xxi), s.146(2)(b), schedule 8 part I.
This Act was taken through Parliament following a conference (at Preston) of Lancashire County and the fifteen Lancashire County Boroughs. It defined the membership of the new Lancashire Asylums Board and the formula for levying the rate precept. It sets no significant boundaries to the Board’s work beyond its responsibilities under the Lunacy and Idiots Acts. Due to Lancashire’s special provision, some subsequent Public Acts (such as the Asylums Officers’ Superannuation Act, 1909 and the Housing Act, 1936), required special clauses legislating for Lancashire. (Information from Bob Hayes 22.12.2003)
1895: Fourth edition of Archbold’s Lunacy
1896: Renton’s The Law of and Practice in Lunacy
Victoria c.60 1898 Inebriates Act
Allowed local authorities to establsh reformatories.
Victoria c.32 1899 Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act section 1: “A school authority..may..make such arrangements..for ascertaining (a) what children in their district, not being imbecile, and not being merely dull or backward, are defective, that is to say, what children by reason of mental or physical defect are incapable of receiving proper benefit from..instruction in the ordinary..schools

King Edward v11
Edward 7 c.47 1908 Lunacy Act
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act

King George V
George 5 c.28 1913 Mental Deficiency Act
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act
required all County and County Borough Councils to establish a Mental Deficiency Committee for ascertaining all the people in the area needing to be dealt with, providing and maintaining suitable institutions, providing care for mental defectives in the community. Section 61 transferred the powers and duties of the Lunacy Commission to the Board of Control. Section 71 defined a certified institution.
George 5 c.45 1914 Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act
1915: Fifth edition of Archbold’s Lunacy

George 5, c.21 1919 Ministry of Health Act
Section one: A Minister of Health to be appointed “for the purpose of promoting the health of the people throughout England and Wales”. Section two: steps to secure the health of the people to include measures for the prevention and cure of disease, the avoidance of fraud in connection with alleged remedies, the treatment of physical and mental defects, the treatment and care of the blind, research, information and statistics, and training people for the health services.
It was to be lawful for the Crown to make Orders in Council to transfer powers from other departments to the Minister of Health. Specified amongst these were all or any of the powers and duties under the enactments relating to lunacy and mental deficiency. By the Ministry of Health (Lunacy and Mental Deficiency, Transfer of Powers) Order, 1920 (S.R.O. 809) most of the powers of the Home Secretary in regard to lunacy and mental deficiency were transferred to the Minister of Health.
extracts at
1922 Infanticide Act: (amended 1938) created the offence of infanticide in the case of a woman who caused the death of a child under twelve months while:
“the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effects of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child”
Previously the possible verdicts were murder or manslaughter.
George 5 c. 60 1922 Lunacy Act
“In 1922 the number of Masters in Lunacy was reduced from two to one and the post of Assistant Master created by s1(1) of the Lunacy Act 1922. The office of the Master in Lunacy was subsequently constituted an office of the Supreme Court by s.124 of the Supreme Court of Judicature (Consolidation) Act 1925.” 1.11.2005 Re MB (a patient)
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act
George 5 c. 53 1925 Mental Deficiency (Amendment) Act
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act
George 5, c.33 1927 Mental Deficiency Act
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act
George 5, c.23 1930 Mental Treatment Act
Repealed by 1959 Mental Health Act
The British Journal of Nursing, in January 1930, summarised the bill as it left the House of Lords:
The Mental Treatment Bill
Earl Russell’s Mental Treatment Bill has passed its third reading in the House of Lords.
It is intituled :-
“An Act to amend the Lunacy Acts, 1890 to 1922, and such of the provisions of the Mental Deficiency Acts, 1913 to 1927, as relate to the constitution and organisation of the work of the Board of Control, the exercise of the powers of the Board and the protection of persons putting those Acts into operation.”
It includes some important provisions.
It provides for the reception of voluntary boarders, and for treatment without certification of persons temporarily incapable of volition, under certain safeguards :-
(i) In an institution provided by a local authority ; or
(ii) In a registered hospital ; Or
(iii) In any such other institution, hospital or nursing home as may be approved by the Board of Control for the reception of such temporary patients ; or
(iv) With the consent of the Board of Control, in single care.
Provision is made for the re-organisation of the Board of Control, which it is proposed shall consist of the chairman (who shall be a paid commissioner) and not more than four other commissioners, all of whom shall be paid commissioners.
Of the members of the Board of Control other than the chairman one at least shall be a legal commissioner, one at least shall be a medical commissioner, and one at least shall be a woman.
The members of the Board of Control shall be styled senior commissioners and shall be appointed by His Majesty on the recommendation, as regards the legal commissioners, of the Lord Chancellor and, as respects the other commissioners, on the recommendation of the Minister of Health, and shall hold office during His Majesty’s pleasure.
The Board may make rules prescribing the books and records to be kept in any institution, hospital, nursing- home or house which receives any patient under this Act or any boarder under this Act or any local Act and prescribing in relation to such institutions, hospitals, homes or houses any of the other matters with respect to which rules map be made under subsection (I) of section 335 of the principal Act.
It is also provided that Asylums provided or to be provided under the Lunacy Acts, 1890 to 1922, by any local authority in England shall hereafter be called, and are in this Act referred to as, mental hospitals.
The Bill is Mental Treatment (No. 60) H.L. Price 6d.
Obtainable from His Majesty’s Stationery Office, Adastral House, Kingsway, London, W.C., or through any bookseller.

King George V1
George 6, c. 43 1938 Mental Deficiency Act
George 6, c.81 1946 National Health Service Act

Queen Elizabeth 11
Elizabeth, 2 c.72 1959 Mental Health Act
An Act to repeal the Lunacy and Mental Treatment Acts 1890 to 1930, and the Mental Deficiency Acts, 1913 to 1938, and to make fresh provision with respect to the treatment and care of mentally disordered persons and with respect to their property and affairs; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid. Royal Assent 29.7.1959

1969 chapter 45 1969 Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act guaranteed a wife’s right to assets upon break-up of a marriage by establishing that her work, as housewife or wage earner, should be considered an equal contribution to creating the family home.
1969 Abolition of the death penalty
1970 chapter 44 1971 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act
1971 chapter 52 1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act
1983 chapter 2 1983 Representation of the People Act
[From memory] I think this allowed patients in mental hospitals to vote using an address that was not the hospital. The address requirement was to avoid having large mental hospitals like those in Hertfordshire deciding who the local MP was.
1983 chapter 20 1983 Mental Health Act
“An Act to consolidate the law relating to mentally disordered persons”. Royal Assent 9.5.1983

1990 chapter 19 1990 National Health Service and Community Care Act
1990 chapter 23 1990 Access to Health Records Act
Includes: Section 3.-(1) “An application for access to a health record, or to any part of a health record, may be made to the holder of the record by … (a) the patient; … (f) where the patient has died, the patient’s personal representative and any person who may have a claim arising out of the patient’s death.
1995 chapter 12 1995 Carers (Recognition and Services) Act
1995 chapter 25 1995 Mental Health (Patients in the Community) Act 52_en_1.htm
1996 chapter 30 1996 Community Care (Direct Payments) Act
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