It is not often that niche areas of law come into discussion in the general public sphere. Lately, however, there is one legal topic that has been widely discussed across multiple social media platforms. Due to the release of a documentary titled ‘Framing Britney Spears’, which sheds some light on the hardships the pop star has faced, and continues to face, the #FreeBritney movement has gained more traction than ever before. Its mission is to call for the end of a legal arrangement Spears has been in for many years - conservatorship.
But what exactly is conservatorship and what does it look like in different jurisdictions?
The United States is a federal country. This means that as well as having federal laws that are applicable all over the country, each state has its own court system and competence to legislate. Conservatorship is one of the many topics that is governed by state laws instead of federal law – as such, what exactly it consists of differs from state to state.
As per the Judicial Branch of California, “a conservatorship is a court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the ‘conservator’) to care for another adult (called the ‘conservatee’) who cannot care for himself or herself or manage his or her finances”. This is the jurisdiction under which Spears’ conservatorship was issued, which she continues to be under.
Upon the examination of the legal definition of conservatorship, it becomes clear why there is so much controversy surrounding the fact that Britney Spears is under a conservatorship. The legal implications are far-reaching and serious. Firstly, in order for one to be placed under a conservatorship in the US, one must be deemed ‘gravely disabled’, and as such, unable to arrange their own financial affairs – that is why most conservatorship cases concern either developmentally disabled people who, when they turn 18, are able remain under their parents’ guardianship via this route, or elderly people who have developed conditions like dementia or Alzheimer’s, making them vulnerable to financial abuse. Once one is successfully placed under a conservatorship, there are very few legal and financial rights they can access independently without having to act through their conservator.
Spears has been living under such an arrangement for over 10 years now, the conservatorship first being issued after a public breakdown in 2007-2008. Whilst it is understandable why such a step was taken at that time, whether or not it is still needed is a question which garners a lot of debate. This is because whilst being under conservatorship, Spears has maintained a highly successful career. Not only has she recorded, released and toured new music, but she has completed intense performance residencies in Las Vegas, acted as a judge on X Factor, and made numerous public appearances. All of this is, of course, inconsistent with the abilities of a ‘gravely disabled’ person. When one considers the fact that one of her co-conservators is her father, who she has unsuccessfully requested to be removed as a conservator before the court numerous times, presumably due to factors like her not having spoken to him in a long time and him having a restraining order against one of her teenage children, it becomes more and more clear why people advocate for her to be relieved from the position she is in.
Whilst Spears’ case is unusual and can seem alarming as it outlines the extent to which a person loses their independence when placed under a conservatorship, the social need for this type of law is clear – regardless of whether Spears is or not, there are of course people who are genuinely disabled in ways which mean that they struggle to effectively manage their own affairs, and as such, need to rely on this system.
That is why it exists under many jurisdictions.
In the UK, conservatorships are known as systems of deputyship. Despite the different name, however, the core meaning, and implications of deputyship are essentially the same as those of conservatorship in the US, i.e. when a person is found to be mentally incapacitated, a deputy is appointed to manage their financial affairs.
Since the English and Welsh legal system is centralized, it is much easier to identify clear definitions of the legal terms involved. The law governing deputyship in this jurisdiction is the Mental Capacity Act 2005, which states that “every adult must be assumed to have capacity unless proven otherwise”, and that “an adult must be given all opportunities for help before they are considered unable to make decisions”. This clearly shows how in the UK, deputyship is intended to be a last resort measure to be taken in order to help people. Whilst this is technically reflected in the US’ system of conservatorship, which should supposedly only be granted after less restrictive options are ruled out, the American Civil Liberties Union has stated that often times they are granted as a “first resort” which means that many people, like Britney Spears, find themselves trapped in conservatorships they cannot get out of.
Another thing that distinguished conservatorship in the US from deputyship in the UK is that in the UK, the Court of Protection (which is tasked with such matters) can rule to what degree is one is incapacitated – for example, it can be held that someone lacks the ability to make big, complex financial decisions and as such should rely on a deputy to do so, but is able to make smaller, everyday decisions for themselves. Since Spears is described as a “high-functioning conservatee” by her lawyer, and has proven herself to be so in the public eye by maintaining such a successful career, it is highly likely that were she in the UK and found to be in need of a deputyship, this would be a lot less restrictive than the one she is actually under. The most probable scenario is that she would be placed under a financial deputyship only (again, this is assuming she has been found in need of a deputyship), with a financial professional being appointed to manage her revenue and assets, not her father.
Lastly, something which both the system of conservatorship in the US and the system of deputyship in the UK share is that under both, any decisions made must be in the best interest of the conservatee – clearly, the public opinion in Spears’ matter seems to be that the decisions her father is making on her behalf break this rule. If this is the case, the courts will not be able to ignore the #FreeBritney campaign for much longer.