Re F (Mental Patient Sterilisation) [1990] 2 AC 1

Whether medical practitioners are able to sterilise a mentally handicapped woman who is unable to consent on the basis that doing so is in her best interest.


The subject of the judgment was a thirty-six year-old mentally handicapped woman who lived voluntarily in a mental hospital and had the mental age of a small child. The woman had developed a sexual relationship with a male patient. The woman’s doctors were of the view that the woman would not cope with pregnancy and childbirth and because no other method of contraception was desirable and because it would not be in the woman’s best interests for the staff to prevent her activity, it was considered in the patient’s best interest to be sterilised. The patient’s mother sought a declaration from the court that such steps would not be unlawful for lack of consent. A declaration was given at first instance and upheld by the Court of Appeal.


The House of Lords was asked to consider whether (1) this was an issue that the court should be involved in (2) what the jurisdiction of the court was in these circumstances and (3) what procedure should be followed.


It was held (1) that although the under the common law a doctor was able to operate on a patient who was unable to consent when it was in the patient’s best interest and therefore the consent of the court was not strictly necessary, given the particular nature of sterilisation, the court should be consulted in these circumstances. (2) The court’s jurisdiction, under the current law, was founded in a declaration under the Rules of the Supreme Court (Revision) (SI 1965/1776), ord 16, as requested by the mother. (3) The declaration procedure was the correct one, although amendments should be made to RSC Ord 80, to allow this to apply to circumstances such as these.