SACRAMENTO, Calif .– A new spotlight on Britney Spears Conservatory, where her legions of fans are calling for reform, has led California lawmakers to consider changes that could affect the pop singer’s lengthy Los Angeles litigation.
The high-profile conservatory has been the subject of intense speculation since Spears was first placed under legal regulation 13 years ago, but public scrutiny of court-ordered guardianship has exploded with the #FreeBritney movement backed by fans who became activists and the recent New York Times documentary, “Framing Britney Spears”.
The documentary, released in February, raised questions about how the conservatory system worked in the star’s case, highlighting how Spears was deprived of decisions about her income and daily life, despite continuing to perform and making millions. Now, California legislature’s proposals aim to strengthen requirements on conservatories, require more supervision and training for those responsible for the care and finances of another person, and introduce additional conditions to protect conservators like Spears.
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A conservatory is a legal arrangement made by a court to protect those who cannot fend for themselves. 39-year-old Spears was first placed under a conservatory in 2008 after she was publicly riddled the previous year when a court oversaw her affairs with her father James “Jaime” Spears and her financial attorney Andrew Wallet commissioned. Wallet resigned in 2019 and the singer is currently trying to remove her father as her conservator. Jaime Spears attorneys have claimed he always acted in his daughter’s best interests.
Rep. Evan Low (D-San Jose) said the issues raised in “Framing Britney Spears” highlighted “some of the worst aspects of the system and the fact that it doesn’t always protect people like her.”
“We’re trying to pull back the curtain on conservatories in California,” Low said. “We know that there are abuses.”
One problem, Low said, is the lack of training and supervision by restorers who are not licensed professionals. Often times, courts will appoint a family member to act on behalf of someone believed to be unable to fend for themselves. Low’s Assembly Bill 1194 would require anyone appointed as a restorer who is not a licensed professional to receive 10 hours of financial abuse training. Non-professional restorers like Spears’ father would also have to register with the state regulatory agency, the Professional Fiduciaries Bureau. This oversight would only apply to properties valued at $ 1 million or more. According to Low’s office, the threshold will be added in upcoming legislative changes.
If a court determines that a restorer was not acting in the best interests of a client, the trustee must suspend or revoke that person’s license or registration and there may be a civil penalty of up to $ 50,000 payable on the estate of the preserve.
AB 1194 also removes a court’s discretion in determining whether a restorer can refer or hire a business entity in which they have a financial interest to work on behalf of the estate they oversee. In addition, the bill mandates that medical reports from a person’s general practitioner must be considered by a court of law when making decisions about a person’s mental performance. It is unclear whether any of these elements of the bill would have had any impact on the Spears Conservatory.
Low said while the kick-off behind the legislation was Spears’ case, he hopes his bill will lead to broader reforms.
“There are many people who are seniors or are otherwise vulnerable and are being exploited,” Low said. “We want to make sure that we take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.”
Senate Draft 724 by Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) would ensure that a person under a conservatory or person in need of guardianship could choose their own attorney, even if the person’s ability to make informed decisions existed is question.
Adam Streisand, a high-profile attorney Spears spoke to when she considered challenging her conservatory in 2008, said the singer was excluded from the hiring based on an unpublished medical report that she was mentally incapable of making that decision to meet. Instead, Spears had to get a court appointed attorney.
Allen presented his bill in response to concerns raised in the documentation, his spokeswoman said.
“If anyone wishes to restrict Californians’ civil and personal freedoms through a conservatory, the proposed conservators should have the right to choose an attorney of their choice to defend them in court,” Allen said in a statement. “Why should the same rights and the same procedure that we guarantee that criminal defendants are not also granted to conservatives?”
Another bill, SB 602 by Senator John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), would reduce the maximum time between judicial reviews of conservatories to every 18 months instead of every two years. That possible change was recommended by the state Justice Council in 2008, Laird’s office said. A spokesman noted that the Spears documentary has long raised questions about possible abuses in the conservatory system.
But Lisa MacCarley, a longtime Los Angeles County Conservatoire attorney, said the reforms proposed by lawmakers were “well-intentioned but missed the point.” She said the necessary overhauls are taking place in the courtroom, where judges, commissioners, and preferred court-appointed attorneys have developed policies and procedures that are inconsistent with California law and the state constitution.
In the Spears case, for example, a judge appointed attorney Samuel Ingham III to represent her on the same day the conservatory was filed, which MacCarley says is highly irregular. Court records show that a judge denied Spears’ request to hire her own attorney and later allowed Ingham to receive payments of up to $ 10,000 per week from the singer’s estate. MacCarley called this “a blatant violation of Ms. Spears’ constitutional right to be represented by an attorney of her choice.”
“All of this contradicts the sacred rights granted to those under Conservatory,” MacCarley said.
Focused on a person’s plight, Bertha Sanchez Hayden, a nursing attorney, said the reforms focused on money management rather than making sure those under conservatoires are well looked after.
“Reforms and constant spotlight are important,” said Sanchez Hayden, senior care attorney at Los Angeles legal aid organization Bet Tzedek Legal Services and a member of the state’s advisory committee on professional trustees. “But these bills seem to only speak on one specific topic without looking at (conservatories) holistically.”
She said there are abuses in the system that need to be addressed, but that cannot be achieved by focusing on one high profile case. A restorer who fails to perform their duties, such as ensuring a person has suitable accommodation or can see a doctor, is just as harmful as a conservator who commits financial abuse, Sanchez Hayden said.
She fears that the Spears case has stigmatized conservatories when the system is vital to others, such as parents whose child is growing up with severe disability in the eyes of the law but is unable to make decisions on their own to meet.
“We can’t rush to repair a wound,” said Sanchez Hayden. “There is no such thing as a cookie cutter.”
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