Legal experts say long fight ahead for Britney Spears

Singer’s testimony has fuelled calls for conservatorship to end but process could involve multiple hearings

Fans and supporters of Britney Spears gather outside the county courthouse in Los Angeles, California, this week with a cardboard cutout of the singer. Photograph:  Frederic J Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Fans and supporters of Britney Spears gather outside the county courthouse in Los Angeles, California, this week with a cardboard cutout of the singer. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP via Getty Images

 

Britney Spears could remain stuck in her conservatorship for months or years, experts say, despite her detailed and disturbing testimony describing the legal arrangement as “abusive” and harmful.

In the 39-year-old singer’s first public testimony on the court agreement that has governed her life for 13 years, Spears alleged on Wednesday that the conservatorship had stripped her of most basic autonomy and at times forced her to take medications and perform against her will. She said it had given her father, Jamie Spears, authority over the most intimate details of her life.

Her emotional speech – which included claims that the conservatorship had prohibited her from getting married or removing her IUD [birth control] so she could have another child – has fuelled calls for the court to immediately terminate the conservatorship and restore the pop star’s independence.

Conservatorship is a type of court-appointed guardianship intended for people who can no longer make decisions for themselves, typically older and infirm people. Legal experts and advocates say it is difficult for people placed in conservatorships to get out of them, although the global backlash could have an impact.

“There aren’t that many people who actually get out of conservatorships,” said Megan Radford, an advocate with the #FreeBritney movement, who has closely followed her case and argued for years for the arrangement to end. “The formal process through the probate courts is slow and ineffective.”

`Long, involved process'

Scott Rahn, an LA-based attorney and expert on conservatorships, said he expected a “long, involved process” that could take years. He noted Spears would have to file a formal petition calling for termination, an action that could involve presenting evidence and later require multiple hearings, depositions and discovery. Attorneys for her father and others who control her care could object.

The conservatorship, which has been in place since 2008, is a form of court-appointed guardianship that has given a licensed conservator, a corporate fiduciary, and her father and others authority over her finances, medical treatment, personal life and career. The arrangement means the state has deemed her incapable of taking care of herself, even though she is able to perform at the highest levels of the entertainment industry.

Documents uncovered by the New York Times showed that Spears has strongly objected to the arrangement for years, but her attorney never filed a petition calling for termination

The conservatorship has also blocked her from choosing her own attorney, Spears said. Her estate has paid millions of dollars to a court-appointed lawyer and a wide range of people involved in the conservatorship, including those directly opposing her wishes.

On Wednesday, Spears said she wanted to select her own lawyer and terminate the conservatorship without evaluation: “I just want my life back . . . All I want is to own my money . . . I want to be able to be heard.”

Urgent termination

Lisa MacCarley, a probate attorney who is a critic of court-appointed conservatorships and supports the #FreeBritney efforts, said Spears has the right to get her own lawyer, who could push for urgent termination.

An attorney could petition an appeals court outlining the “long laundry list of violations of her constitutional rights”, MacCarley said. “I believe the court would be sensitive to the long and dismal history of what transpired here, especially now that she has articulated her frustration and abuse.”

MacCarley said she believed it was a conflict of interest that Spears’s court-appointed attorney, Samuel Ingham, has made hundreds of thousands of dollars a year representing her. Documents recently uncovered by the New York Times showed that Spears has strongly objected to the arrangement for years, but her attorney has never filed a petition calling for termination. Spears told the judge this week that she did not know that was an option.

If Spears remained with Ingham or a court-appointed lawyer, MacCarley said, the process would drag on: “It would be an epic battle.”

Another obstacle to hiring her own lawyer is Spears’s lack of control over her finances, said Dr Stacey Wood, a Scripps College psychology professor and conservatorship expert. Ending a conservatorship sometimes involves putting in place “safeguards” to address any concerns about the conservatee’s wellbeing, she said, adding, “She should have her day in court.”

Experts cautioned that much of the key proceedings and medical documents remain sealed, which makes it challenging to evaluate or predict next steps. Her circumstances are also unusual; conservatorships typically involve elderly or infirm people.

Alexander Ripps, another LA lawyer, said he expected the judge would take Spears’s testimony seriously: “She said in no uncertain terms that she is challenging this conservatorship, and she wants it to end. Having her say that directly to the court is really powerful.”

But he said it was possible the court process could lead to a compromise where only part of the conservatorship remains, such as the control of her estate. Spears’s claims about being forced to work and being restricted from seeing certain people were unusual and troubling, he added.

Photograph: Rich Fury/Getty Images
Photograph: Rich Fury/Getty Images

Sparked concerns

The next hearing in Spears’s case is scheduled for July 14th, though it’s unclear how much that proceeding will address Spears’s testimony and request.

Her case has for months sparked concerns among lawmakers and others, and advocates hope officials will now increase pressure or intervene.

“Britney blew the whistle, and somebody needs to take action outside of the LA probate court,” said Radford, adding that the matter was urgent: “She just exposed her abusers and had to turn around and go right back to being controlled by them.”

“Public attention really matters on high-profile cases like this, and I’m just praying the judge listens,” said Junior Olivas, one of the first fans to protest for Spears. “It’s time for her to regain control of her life.”

Leanne Simmons, another longtime #FreeBritney activist, said she was hopeful that Spears’s words and the outrage she has inspired would allow her to find the right attorney who could successfully fight for termination.

“There’s no stopping this movement, and there’s no stopping Britney herself. I’m very confident she will be free soon.”

On Thursday, Spears told her supporters on Instagram that she was sorry for “pretending like I’ve been OK the past two years”, noting that her fans were now aware of what she was going through. “I don’t want people to think my life is perfect because IT’S DEFINITELY NOT AT ALL.”

Vivian Thoreen, the attorney for Jamie Spears, said in court, “He is sorry to see his daughter suffering and in so much pain. Mr Spears loves his daughter and misses her very much.”

The judge, Brenda Penny, thanked her for speaking out.

An attorney for Jodi Montgomery, Spears’s licensed conservator, said in an email that the lawyer has an “obligation to uphold Ms Spears’ medical and other privacy rights”, adding, “We look forward to addressing all of Ms Spears’ concerns and setting forth her medical team’s perspective on them in a care plan that we will file with the court.”

Other attorneys involved in the case, including Ingham, have not responded to requests for comment. – Guardian

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