#FreeBritney movement fuels debate on conservatories law

A new spotlight on Britney Spears’ tutelage, which has her legions of fans calling for reform, has prompted California lawmakers to consider changes that could affect the pop singer’s protracted legal case in Los Angeles.

The high-profile guardianship has been the focus of intense speculation since Spears was first placed under the legal settlement 13 years ago, but public scrutiny of the court-ordered guardianship has exploded with the #FreeBritney movement backed by converted fans. in activists and the recent New York Times Documentary “Framing Britney Spears.”

The documentary, released in February, raised questions about how the guardianship system has worked in the star’s case, highlighting how Spears was stripped of decisions about her earnings and her daily life, even as she continued to act and earn millions. Now, proposals in the California Legislature aim to strengthen the guardianship requirements, requiring more supervision and training of those in charge of someone else’s care and finances, and implementing additional conditions to safeguard wards like Spears.

A guardianship is a legal arrangement established by a court for the purpose of protecting those who are unable to care for themselves. Spears, 39, was first placed under guardianship in 2008 after her audience fell apart the year before., when a court appointed her father, James “Jaime” Spears, and attorney Andrew Wallet, who managed her financial assets, to oversee her affairs. Wallet resigned in 2019 and the singer is currently attempting to remove her father as her guardian. Jaime Spears’ attorneys have maintained that she has always acted in her daughter’s best interest.

Assemblyman 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 are trying to pull the curtain back on conservatories in California,” Low said. “We know that abuses are taking place.”

One problem, Low said, is the lack of training and supervision of conservatives who are not licensed professionals. Often times, the courts will appoint a family member to act on behalf of a person who is considered to be no longer able to care for himself or herself. Low Assembly Bill 1194 would require that any person appointed as conservator who is not a licensed professional receive 10 hours of financial abuse training. Non-professional conservators, like Spears’s father, should also register with the state’s oversight agency, the Office of Professional Trustees. That oversight would only apply to properties valued at $ 1 million or more, and Low’s office said the threshold will be added in upcoming amendments to the bill.

If a court finds that a conservator did not act in the best interest of a client, the trustee’s office must suspend or revoke that person’s license or registration and they could face a civil penalty of up to $ 50,000 payable to the estate. of the ward.

AB 1194 also removes the discretion of a court to decide whether a conservator can recommend or hire any business entity in which he has a financial interest to work on behalf of the estate he is supervising. Additionally, the bill requires that a person’s primary care physician’s medical reports be considered by a court when making decisions about a person’s mental capacity. It’s unclear whether any of those elements of the bill would have had an impact on Spears’ guardianship.

Low said that while the impetus behind the legislation was Spears’ case, he hopes her bill will lead to broader reforms.

“There are a lot of people who are older or vulnerable in other ways and they are being taken advantage of,” Low said. “We want to make sure that we are taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves.”

Senator Ben Allen’s (D-Santa Monica) Senate Bill 724 would ensure that a person under guardianship or someone said to be in need of a guardianship can choose their own attorney, even if the person’s ability to make sound decisions is in question.

Adam Streisand, a high-profile attorney with whom Spears spoke when she considered challenging her guardianship in 2008, has said the singer was barred from hiring him due to an undisclosed medical report that said she was mentally incapable of making that decision. Instead, Spears was required to obtain a court-appointed attorney.

Allen introduced his bill in response to concerns raised in the documentary, his spokesman said.

“When someone wants to limit the civil liberties and personal liberties of Californians through a conservatorship, the proposed wards should have the right to select an attorney of their own choosing to defend them in court,” Allen said in a statement. “Why shouldn’t wards be given the same rights and due process that we guarantee to criminal defendants?”

Another bill, Sen. SB 602. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), would reduce the maximum amount of time between court reviews of guardianships to every 18 months, instead of every two years. That potential change was recommended by the state Judicial Council in 2008, Laird’s office said. A spokesperson noted that Spears’ documentary raised long-standing issues about possible abuses in the guardianship system.

But Lisa MacCarley, a longtime guardianship attorney in Los Angeles County, said the reforms proposed by lawmakers are “well-intentioned, but they are not the point.” He said the necessary reforms are in the courtroom, where judges, commissioners and court-appointed attorneys have created policies and procedures that are inconsistent with California law and the state Constitution.

For example, in Spears’ case, a judge appointed attorney Samuel Ingham III to represent her on the same day the guardianship was filed, which according to MacCarley is highly irregular. Court records show that a judge denied Spears’s request to hire her own attorney, and instead later approved that Ingham receive payments of up to $ 10,000 a week from the singer’s estate. MacCarley called this “a flagrant violation of Ms. Spears’ constitutional rights to be represented by an attorney of her choice.”

“All of these are inconsistent with the sacred rights accorded to individuals facing guardianship,” MacCarley said.

Focusing on a person’s plight, caregiver services attorney Bertha Sánchez Hayden said the reforms focus on managing money rather than ensuring that those in guardianship are well cared for.

“Reform and ongoing care are important,” said Sanchez Hayden, the managing attorney for caregiver services at Los Angeles legal aid organization Bet Tzedek Legal Services and a member of the state’s Professional Trustees Advisory Committee. “But these bills only seem to refer to a specific issue without taking into account [conservatorships] holistically “.

He said there are abuses in the system that need to be addressed, but that cannot be done by concentrating on a high-profile case. A conservator who fails to fulfill his or her duties, such as making sure a person has adequate housing or can go to the doctor, is just as damaging as a conservator who commits financial abuse, Sánchez Hayden said.

He said he is concerned that guardianships have been stigmatized because of the Spears case when the system is vital to others, such as a parent whose severely disabled child becomes an adult in the eyes of the law but is unable to make decisions for himself.

“We cannot rush to repair an injury,” said Sánchez Hayden. “There is no cookie cutter solution.”

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