Chancery: Petty Bag Office: Commissions and Inquisitions of Lunacy
Commissions de lunatico inquirendo and the returns made to them, to establish whether persons were lunatics.
The early inquisitions were conducted by local men who were instructed to discover whether the subject was 'sufficient for the government of himself' and his property; when and how he had become a lunatic; whether he had alienated any land while not lucid, and if so what and to whom; what property remained to him, and who was his heir.
From 1853, the records consist of a petition or order for an inquisition, and a report by the Master in Lunacy indicating whether the subject was of unsound mind.
The early inquisitions are often informative about property holdings; later ones are not. There are few lunacy commissions for England in the twentieth century. The later records do, however, contain copies of inquisitions taken in Ireland, and in some British colonies, which are specifically concerned with the mental health of the person.
The petitioners who requested an inquisition fell into various categories: relatives; solicitors or others acting as the executors of a will; the Lunacy Commissioners, fearful of misappropriation of an estate; and creditors of the alleged lunatic.
For the period 1627-1853, the individual commissions and their returns were removed from their original term files and sorted into alphabetical bundles arranged by the surname of the alleged lunatic. These alphabetical bundles were then sorted by date and numbered.
The remainder of the series is arranged chronologically.
The custody of the lands and persons of lunatics (those who were 'sometimes of good and sound memory and understanding and sometimes not') was vested in the Crown under an act of 1324. This jurisdiction over lunatics was the responsibility of the lord chancellor, who was required
- to ascertain by an inquisition whether a person was of sound mind or not;
- to commit the custody of the lunatic and his estate to suitable persons, sometimes the next of kin, called 'committees';
- to examine the accounts of the committees.
The priority was the proper administration of the lunatic's estate. The whole point of getting a person declared of unsound mind by a Chancery inquisition was to take away his or her power of independent legal action in the disposition of property. It had nothing to do with committal to an asylum, which was a separate medical procedure.
Procedures for dealing with the affairs of the mentally ill were consolidated and amended by an act of 1853 and simplified by the Lunacy Acts of 1890 to 1908.
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