Book Review: Looking after Miss Alexander: Care, Mental Capacity, and the Court of Protection in Mid-Twentieth-Century England

Looking after Miss Alexander: Care, Mental Capacity, and the Court of Protection in Mid-Twentieth-Century England (Janet Weston, McGill-Queens University Press, 2023, and free ebook available here)

The best books encompass worlds within their pages.  This book, by Dr Janet Weston, Assistant Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, encompasses both lives and worlds within its 193 pages.  Taking a detailed, sensitive, and generous approach to what we know of the life of Miss Beatrice Alexander, one of roughly 30,000 people whose affairs were managed by the Court of Protection in mid 20th century England and Wales, Weston examines how and why a 59 year old woman with no prior history of mental disorder was declared incapable, and how her life was changed in consequence – and remained changed for the next thirty years.

Weston uses Miss Alexander’s story to illustrate the wider complexities of mental capacity law as it stood at the time, and to reflect upon what her story tells us about debates in relation to mental capacity now.  A real strength of the book is the way in which Weston openly acknowledges both the gaps in the historical record and the leaps that she has had to make to recreate the decision-making in play, and also the dangerous temptation to project present-day assumptions upon people in the past.  Whilst I do not want to give away too much of Miss Alexander’s story – as a particular delight of the book is the way in which it is unfolded, in often surprising ways – particularly interesting to me as a present-day Court of Protection lawyer was the way in which her case encapsulated one of the most difficult dilemmas faced in practice: what to do where a person appears (potentially) to be under the influence of others who (seemingly) do not necessarily have their interests at heart?

Some might think that a book about a court which no longer exists (the Court of Protection described in the book is not the same as that established under the Mental Capacity Act 2005) can – at best – be of historical interest.   That is emphatically not the case here, and on almost all of its pages can be found the working out of challenges that remain just as live today as they did in 1939, when Miss Alexander came under the aegis of the Court of Protection.  Whilst Weston makes clear her own – changing – perspectives on how those challenges were met in Miss Alexander’s case, she provides ample evidence and intellectual space for other views to be taken, and, in consequence, this splendid book could just as easily serve as a focus for a practice discussion by contemporary social workers as it can for anyone wanting a fascinating trip into the pre-history of the Mental Capacity Act 2005.

The icing on the cake is that, as this book stems from a Wellcome-funded project, Managing mental capacity: a history, it is available for free as an ebook.   The project’s website also includes archival material and two fascinating short films, one about Miss Alexander, and another about Miss Jean Carr, another person determined incapable of managing her own affairs.

[Full disclosure, Janet Weston and I were in correspondence in the course of writing her book about some modern day aspects of mental capacity law]

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