BACKGROUND: Despite research evidence that guidelines can improve patient care, concerns remain over their cost-effectiveness. This is particularly so when there is a proliferation of guidelines for the same condition. Faced with differing recommendations, users will wish to make informed decisions on which guideline to follow. In creating a guideline appraisal instrument we have assessed guidelines developed in the United Kingdom (UK) for the management of a range of disorders including depression in primary care. AIM: To identify the number of UK clinical guidelines for the management of depression in primary care and to describe their quality and clinical content. METHOD: A survey was undertaken to identify all depression guidelines developed in the UK between January 1991 and January 1996. All guidelines produced by national organizations and a random sample of local guidelines were appraised using a validated instrument by six assessors: a national expert in the disease area, a general practitioner, a public health physician, a hospital consultant, a nurse specializing in the disease area, and a researcher on guideline methodology. The clinical content of each guideline was then assessed by one of the researchers (RB) according to a defined framework. RESULTS: Forty-five depression guidelines were identified. While there was a considerable range in the quality of the six national and three local guidelines appraised, at a group level their performance was similar to guidelines for other diseases. Clinical recommendations tended to reflect the joint consensus statement produced by the Royal College of General Practitioners and Royal College of Psychiatrists in 1992. The most obvious difference was in the style in which the guidelines were written and presented. CONCLUSION: A 'national template' was the starting place for most guidelines. Steps need to be taken to ensure that these templates are based on the best possible research evidence and professional opinion. Local clinicians should concentrate on effective dissemination and implementation strategies, rather than creating new guidelines.