On June 21 2021, Britney Spears publicly addressed the Los Angeles Superior Court for the first time in over a decade. Britney revealed the years of control, coercion, and constraint suffered under the guise of a ‘Conservatorship’; an arrangement designed to assist those unable to handle the minutiae of everyday life. Announcing that she is “not here to be anyone’s slave”, Britney’s case raises various questions regarding the role of our Courts in protecting personal autonomy.
Since February 2008, Britney has had little-to-no power over her $60 million estate. From health decisions and business opportunities, to relationships, and home visitors, every aspect of a Conservatee’s life is micromanaged by the Conservator.
Following Britney’s highly publicised mental health crisis in 2008, her father Jamie Spears became her court-appointed Conservator. Stereotypically utilised by US courts in cases concerning the elderly and those with cognitive disorders, her Conservatorship has existed far beyond its initial implementation as a ‘temporary’ measure. Despite Britney’s mother Lynne attesting that her daughter’s “capacity is certainly different today than it was in 2008”, the Court has once again extended the order until September 2021.
On July 14 2021, Judge Brenda Penny finally authorised Britney to appoint her own lawyer – a ground-breaking pronouncement that poses a favourable outlook for the September hearing. For the past decade, the Conservatorship had not allowed Britney to appoint her own lawyer. With all legal decisions effectively controlled by the Conservator, any chances for Britney to seek objective counsel were negated. Despite being permitted to petition the Courts to annul the Conservatorship, Britney acknowledged in her statement that the court-appointed lawyer Mr Ingham, who worked closely with Jamie Spears, purposefully failed to inform her of this right. Ironically, Mr Ingham recently resigned following Britney’s public testament that he had advised her against voicing any discomfort she felt about the Conservatorship. The co-conservator of Britney’s finances, Bessemer Trust, also recently withdrew their involvement. The wealth management firm related their exit to false representations of the parties that the “ongoing Conservatorship was voluntary”.
In her testimony, Britney referenced various incidents where her personal interests were overruled by the Conservator’s desires. Britney asserted that her wish for the removal of an IUD had been prohibited by the Conservator, effectively denying her the ability to have a child. All Britney’s worries regarding the commencement of new psychiatric medications were ignored, resulting in the involuntary consumption of medication that made her feel so incapacitated she “couldn’t even have a conversation”.
With Britney declaring that “it’s my wish and my dream for all this to end,” it is ultimately concerning that the US Courts have taken over a decade to consider a reassessment of the Conservatorship. Considering the role of the Courts in perpetuating such a toxic and questionable arrangement, it is relevant to consider, could this happen in Australia?
The role of an Australian court-appointed ‘Guardian’ is comparable to that of the American Conservator. In the Australian Capital Territory, the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (“ACAT”), determines Guardianship cases under the Guardianship and Management of Property Act 1991 (ACT). A Guardian may be appointed to a ‘Protected Person’ whose impaired decision-making ability would adversely affect their own personal needs.
Guardians wield the power to decide on matters including education, employment, legal proceedings, and where and with whom the Protected Person may live. A Guardian is appointed for a maximum term of 3 years, at which time ACAT must undertake a review of the arrangement.
Alternative to the appointment of a Guardian, ACAT may also approve a Financial Manger to handle the Protected Person’s finances and property. If there is no appropriate family or friend to appoint as the manager, ACAT may ascribe these duties to the Public Trustee and Guardian to ensure the funds are managed sensibly.
In making these judgements, the appointed individual is bound to respect the Protected Person’s wishes and established lifestyle, encouraging involvement in the community, and ensuring interference with their traditional patterns to the smallest extent. A Guardian or financial manager should not make any decisions that adversely impact the Protected Person – a principle evidently disregarded in the case of Britney.
Broadly, the ACT employs a highly regulated system of checks and balances for the appointment of a Guardian through the utilisation of ACAT. In light of the intense media attention accorded to Britney’s impassioned supporters, it is unlikely such a highly publicised abuse of Guardianship powers would be allowed to persist in the ACT.
In conclusion, #FreeBritney.