Politics

Conservatorship terminated by judge after nearly 14 years


A judge has approved the termination of Britney Spears’s conservatorship, freeing the pop star from the controversial legal arrangement that has controlled her life for nearly 14 years.

The ruling marks an extraordinary victory for the singer who had fought for years to regain her independence from the courts, which in 2008 took away her rights to make basic decisions about her finances, career and personal life.

Friday’s decision to dissolve the conservatorship, a form of court-appointed guardianship, means that Ms Spears will retake control of her estate and will no longer be required to pay a team of professionals and attorneys to oversee her affairs.

“The conservatorship of the person and of the estate of Britney Jean Spears is hereby terminated,” said the Los Angeles judge Brenda Penny, announcing the ruling.

The end of the conservatorship comes five months after Ms Spears (39) spoke publicly about the arrangement for the first time in court, saying she had been forced to take medications and perform against her will, and that her father, Jamie Spears, had been an abusive conservator who tightly controlled intimidate details of her life. A judge suspended her father from the conservatorship in September.

‘Freedom party’

The case has sparked international protests and prompted widespread scrutiny of the media’s treatment of female pop stars and of the opaque guardianship system that affects millions of people. Fans, who have been organising #FreeBritney demonstrations for years, shut down the street outside the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Friday to rally in support of termination and planned a “freedom party” in the evening.

Ms Spears was first placed into a conservatorship while facing apparent mental health struggles amid vicious paparazzi abuse in 2008. She quickly objected to the arrangement and her father’s role in it, reporting has since revealed, and she tried to hire her own lawyer to advocate for her. But the courts ruled that she did not have the capacity to select an attorney, and instead gave her a court-appointed lawyer, Samuel D Ingham III.

After Ms Spears’s testimony, along with a pair of documentaries about the case, the parties involved said they supported termination of the conservatorship.

Conservatorships are typically put in place for older or infirm people who can no longer make decisions for themselves, but in Spears’s case, the courts established an indefinite conservatorship even as she continued with her hugely successful career. The arrangement forced her to pay Ingham, her father and his legal team, and others involved in the court case.

Ms Spears strongly objected to the arrangement for years, the New York Times reported this year, citing confidential court documents, but Mr Ingham, who made an estimated $3 million representing Spears, charging $475 an hour, did not advocate for the conservatorship to end. In 2016, while Ms Spears was performing her hit Las Vegas residency and releasing her ninth studio album, she outlined a range of disturbing allegations to a court investigator, the records showed.

She allegedly told the court that those involved in the conservatorship had made her perform while sick with a fever, that her security team and assistant held her credit card and used it whenever they wanted, that she was limited to a weekly allowance, and that her father prohibited her from making cosmetic changes to her kitchen. In a closed-door hearing that year, the Times reported, she also said she was forced into a mental health facility against her will, which she viewed as retaliation for speaking up in a rehearsal.

Despite those private objections, the arrangement continued for years with few changes. Mr Ingham more recently began raising concerns about Jamie’s treatment of his daughter, saying in court last year that she was “afraid of her father”, but the lawyer did not file for Ms Spears to regain her independence.

Petition

The case took a dramatic turn in June when Spears requested that she be allowed to speak publicly and then detailed her complaints, including claims that her boyfriend wasn’t allowed to drive her in his car and that she was barred from removing her birth control. She also said she did not know that she could file a petition to end the conservatorship.

In July, Spears was allowed to hire her own lawyer, Mathew Rosengart, who has since aggressively advocated for Jamie to be removed and has vowed to investigate his actions and handling of her money.

Amid the upheaval prompted by Ms Spears’s testimony and two explosive documentaries about the case, the parties on all sides of the conservatorship came out and said they now supported termination.

Junior Olivas, one of the first fans to protest outside court, said when he had begun rallying in April 2019, he thought Ms Spears would be freed from the conservatorship within a month. He had no idea it would be a years-long battle: “It took documentaries and the whole world talking about it, but oh my God, we’re finally here – I knew this day would come. But it felt like it took for ever.”

Meg Radford, another longtime #FreeBritney organiser, noted that it was just earlier this year that Jamie was calling fans “conspiracy theorists” for expressing concerns about her wellbeing. “Jamie Spears was able to control the narrative by calling us crazy and the court records were sealed for so long that people weren’t able to find the truth.”

Even with the arrangement terminated, Mr Rosengart has said he will continue investigating Jamie, including the recent claims that he hired a security team that monitored his daughter’s private communications.

The case has prompted guardianship reform efforts at the state and federal level, with California recently passing a law that establishes conservatees’ rights to hire their own counsel.

Rare termination

Jasmine E Harris, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and expert in conservatorships, said this kind of termination was rare. Once a court deemed someone incapable of making decisions, she said, it was difficult for that person to prove that their rights should be restored, and most often, conservatorships lasted until the individual died.

“I think this would have gone another 13 years had it not been for that moment when Britney was allowed to speak on her own behalf,” Ms Harris said, adding that she hoped the public now understood that people of all ages could lose their independence through the guardianship system, and that this was a disability rights issue.

She also urged more investments to alternatives to conservatorship so that people could get the support they needed without the “nuclear option” of having their fundamental rights stripped away.

Ms Radford said the #FreeBritney activists would continue to fight for accountability in Spears’s conservatorship and for broader reform: “I think this court case will go down in history books, and Britney’s case will be the catalyst for significant change for conservatorships and guardianships and how we treat our elderly and our disabled in the court system.”

She added: “I hope Britney takes time to heal and learn how to re-enter the world … and when she’s ready, if she wants to tell her story, I would love to hear this story from Britney directly someday.” – Guardian



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