Conservatorship & Conservatee: The case of Britney Spears


“I don’t understand how the legal system has let this go on for so long. Maybe it’s like the first one of its kind and they don’t know how to handle it, but it seems like it’s an epic fail of the legal system, that this has gone on for so long and there has been no resolution even. It just seems like it keeps getting worse.” – Andrew Gallery.
The concept of conservatorship and its implementation have been very different. Assuming that the system of conservatorship did not intend for a conservatee to essentially lose their basic human rights but in the case of Britney Spears that is exactly what happened. The intentions of those involved were definitely factors which affected the whole situation in a negative way; however, the lacunae in legislation regarding conservatorship, the improper implementation, the apparent moments of ignorance on the part of the justice system are also crucial factors. This article aims to analyze where the justice system lacks in this regard via the analysis of the life of Britney Spears under the conservatorship through the documentary ‘Britney vs. Spears’.
A conservatorship, simply put, is allowing someone else to make decisions about your personal and financial affairs. Some people have called conservatorship tantamount to a civil death. In the way it has been implemented, a conservatize loses their ability to decide on anything related to their healthcare, including treatments, drugs to take if necessary. They lose their right to communicate with people of their choosing and the right to visit them. Thus, it should only be implemented in severe cases. Criteria for being under a conservatorship clearly needs to be rigorous. Britney Spears does not seem to fit into the current criteria. You have to be unable to meet your needs for food, clothing, health and shelter to actually need to be under a conservatorship.
When it comes to the management of an individual’s estate, in India, there is no conservatorship system per se but in its stead there is an inquisition followed by a recording of the findings according to which it is determined whether a person is mentally unfit. In the circumstance of a person being mentally unfit, further consideration is made of the person’s capability of managing their estate on their own. If someone is deemed unfit then, through due process, a guardian is appointed. When it comes to property it is managed by the Court of Wards unless there is an exception.
Britney was being stalked and put at risk by the paparazzi. She did not seem to trust her family and she also had a failed marriage and a very public custody battle. This all is very likely to take a toll on a person — and it did. At this point, anybody who keeps up with pop culture knows about the infamous Britney meltdowns. It is acknowledged that Britney needed help at this point of time, however the way in which she should have received it is debatable. Even if the conservatorship was the right course of action the duration of thirteen years renders it problematic.
It actually takes very little to become a conservator, in most cases a family member is approved by the court. Ideally a little more attention can be paid to how the relationship between a conservatee and the conservator actually is and ought to be. The conservatorship instead of making matters better seemed to make matters worse and her family, especially her father who was her conservator lacked the necessary concern to aid her. Jamie Spears had bankruptcy and financial mismanagement issues and a drinking problem which made it seem unlikely for him to be competent enough to deal with Britney’s affairs. Britney also claimed that Jamie ‘siphoned millions’ from the conservatorship, using her estate to pay his legal fees amongst other things.
Here lies the major distinctions, in India, a guardian is ‘appointed’ and the Act states that “No person, who is the legal heir….shall be appointed under section 53,54 or 55 to be the guardian…unless the District Court or, as the case may be, the Collector, for reasons to be recorded in writing, considers that such appointment is for the benefit of the mentally ill person.”
In the case of the US, the conservatee has to be given a 5 days’ notice before the conservatorship is set to begin so they can get their matters in order and contest the conservatorship if they wish to. This rule can be bypassed; however there needs to be a justifiable reason. In the case of Britney, her parents accused her friend and ex – manager – Sam Lutfi of being overbearing and drugging Britney, hence believing he was dangerous and had to be kept away immediately. Against all evidence supporting Britney’s sobriety, the court decided to carry further the process for bypassing the 5 day notice.
Sam was only one of the reasons given to justify the initially temporary conservatorship. One of the reasons given was that she supposedly had dementia. The doctor’s provided medical evaluation was contestable due to certain inconstancies. At the time this diagnosis was given, Britney was guest starring in a tv show, writing an album and performing, a person with dementia is unlikely to be able to do these things. Her medication dozes were randomly changed and were forced upon her, she was also forced into a mental health facility in 2019 and was made to tell the public that she went voluntarily.
In India the District Court and other authorities have a role to play in the affairs of a mentally ill person whether the situation may be permanent or temporary. This perhaps makes the system less prone to leading to the exploitation of mentally incapacitated individuals.
In the case of the mental illness being temporary the management of a person is given a particular duration period. There is also provision for it to cease in the case of the mental illness ceasing preceded by a formal inquisition. These provisions can help escape from the loop the conservatorship can plausibly cause – on the face of it how can you tell if a person is not in need of a conservatorship/guardianship anymore? If a person’s mental state seems to be getting worse under a conservatorship/guardianship does it mean they need to be under one or that the conservatorship/guardianship is detrimental.
A fundamental to one’s legal representation is their counsel. If no one else, it is crucial that your lawyer is on your side; the fragility in the conservatorship process lies in the fact that the lawyer for the conservatee’s counsel only gets paid once upon the approval of the conservator, thereby compromising the justful representation of the conservatee.
Even though under Indian law it appears that a mentally incapacitated person cannot choose the legal representation they are entitled to, the structure of the guardianship ensures that the lawyer is acting in the best interest of the client.
She wanted to change her lawyer for the longest time. The court was given the impression that she did not have sufficient capacity to retain counsel of her choice, she tried to contest this however was not successful.
So diminished was her liberty at this point that to try to speak out she had to write a letter describing the exploitative nature of the conservatorship and give it to a friend to read out; however even that was quashed. The people working with her while she was on tour commented that the amount of time she was working was bad for both her physical and mental health, the exact opposite of what the conservatorship is meant to do. The efficacy of a conservatorship depends upon execution under the law and the corruptibility of the parties involved. There was a wide disparity in her allowance and the net income she grossed in a year.
In India under the Mental Health Act – Section 81 sub section 3 – it is stated that “subject to any rules made in this behalf under section 94 for the purpose of preventing vexatious or defamatory communications or communications prejudicial to the treatment of mentally ill persons, no letters or other communications sent by or to a mentally ill persons under treatment shall be intercepted, detained or destroyed.” Although it cannot be said that this provision prevents situations like that of Britney Spears, it does act as a safeguard.
“When I tell them the way I feel, it’s like they hear but they’re really not listening … It’s like, it’s bad. I’m sad.” At the same time she said this, her father was telling the public how great the conservatorship was for her. This contradiction was left unacknowledged by the justice system. Although, she did garner public support on the matter. There were sealed court documents of her expressing how depressed and angry she felt. The conservatorship, in the case of Britney Spears, proved to be detrimental and failed to serve its purpose or role : from a false diagnosis to a plausible façade created by involved parties and even sealed court documents withholding Britney’s expression of her plight. “I don’t think how the state of California can have all this written in the court documents from the time I showed up and do absolutely nothing.” – Britney Spears
‘Britney vs. Spears’ is a case in point for a larger and longer battle for we as participants living under the rule of law in society should not be passive receivers of decrees without critical participation — our laws should evolve with us.
*Disclaimer : The contents and the narrative in this article has been taken from the documentary ‘Britney vs. Spears’ and other sources which are available in the public domain.

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About the Author: Legally Speaking Desk