F v West Berkshire Health Authority [1989] 2 AC 1

Declaration of legality, performing operation on patient incapable of giving consent


The case concerned a 36 year old woman who however had the mental age of a minor. The woman in question lived permanently at a mental hospital under medical care. Her mother sought a declaration from the court to the effect that it would be lawful to sterilize her daughter even though she is unable to consent to the operation due to her mental age. The need for the application was grounded in the fact that hospital staff (as well as the mother) suspected that the daughter may become pregnant as she had entered into a relationship with a patient in the hospital where she was staying. It was feared that going through pregnancy and the birth would have serious negative consequences for the daughter.


Several issues arose in this case, namely whether it was lawful for a doctor to perform such an operation on a patient who is mentally incapable of giving consent, whether the court has jurisdiction to make such a declaration of legality and whether such a declaration must be sought before such an operation can be performed.


The court held that the operation was lawful as it was in the best interests of the daughter. It was held that this could be determined by reference to what is accepted at the time of the operation as the appropriate treatment, by a reasonable body of medical opinion skilled in the proposed treatment. Further, the court held that it is not necessary for a doctor to seek a declaration of legality before carrying out a sterilization in similar circumstances, but that a doctor should in practice seek such a declaration.