- 12 Jul 21
Britney Spears has made a passionate plea to courts in the US to end her court-mandated conservatorship. But guardianship systems resembling the one imposed on Britney are found all over the world – and the people living under the burden of these networks are rarely afforded the kind of public platform she commands, to speak openly about their lives.
The testimony delivered by Britney Spears in a California court on June 23 was explosive. For the first time in her thirteen years under a court-mandated conservatorship – and following what Rolling Stone once referred to as "the most public downfall of any star in history" – the iconic pop singer was able to vocalise the reality of her debilitating, abusive situation.
In a 20-minute speech, the performer described harrowing details of being forced to take medication against her wishes, having her finances wrenched from her grip, and having an unwanted IUD placed in her body as a non-consensual contraceptive. Even going for a drive in her boyfriend Sam Asghari’s car is out of the question for Spears, let alone marrying her partner.
She also detailed how she was being deprived of personal services like hair and nail appointments to make her appear dishevelled, and that she would be sent to therapy appointments in places that were easily accessed by paparazzi, all to feed into the image of her being 'crazy', and to justify the need for the conservatorship.
The fallout from Britney’s testimony was immediate. Within days of each other, her court appointed lawyer Samuel Ingham III, and her manager of 25 years Larry Randolph resigned. Bessemer Trust, the financial firm who had been appointed co-conservators of her estate, also resigned, saying they had been under the impression Britney was in the conservatorship willingly, an illusion shattered by her impassioned plea to the judge to end it.
A New Yorker magazine article published on July 3rd by Ronan Farrow and Jia Tolentino brought further allegations of mistreatment to light, and confirmed what many of Britney’s online supporters, the #FreeBritney campaign, had long claimed: that she never wanted her father, Jamie Spears, to be the one responsible for her care.
In her testimony, Britney also castigated her father, who has served as the sole conservator of her person and co-conservator of her finances for much of the conservatorship’s duration – and is now fighting to be reappointed in full to that role. “My dad and anyone involved in this conservatorship and my management, who played a key role in punishing me, should be in jail,” the 39-year-old remarked.
Jamie Spears is not quite the Big Bad Monster of this scenario, however. It would be harmful to view Britney Spears’ case as an isolated incident of an abusive conservator, when the conservatorship system itself is at the root of the problem.
While the details of Spears’ situation shocked the public, disability rights lawyers and activists across the US and the world have seen this all before, under the guise of ‘guardianship’. For many vulnerable members of society, their rights have been painstakingly stripped of them under the disguise of “care”.
IT’S ABOUT CONTROL
Clíona de Bhailís is a PhD candidate with the Centre for Disability Law and Policy (CDLP) in NUI Galway. She tells Hot Press that a lot of what Spears touched on in her testimony were hugely commonplace incidents that she has witnessed herself in reports, research projects, and real cases.
“They're happening every day in this country, and they're not being reported upon,” de Bhailís explains. “It's a daily occurrence in some parts. We're only hearing about this because it's Britney, and because there are millions and billions of dollars associated with it.”
A conservatorship is a type of guardianship arrangement in the US typically instituted for elderly adults, people experiencing mental illness or for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities. In Ireland, the equivalent is known as a wardship, where a court application is made by a solicitor or a concerned party to protect the person and the property of an individual if they lack the capacity to do so themselves.
As of 2015, there were almost 2,700 wards of court in Ireland. The Irish system, however, is incredibly antiquated, and a lot of the systems as well as the legislation actually date back to the Lunacy Regulation Ireland Act of 1871.
“The hint is in the title,” says de Bhailís. “It isn't human rights compliant.”
This right here is the major issue with guardianship arrangements like Spears’ conservatorship. Under these systems, all decisions are made for the person under guardianship – in Spears’ case, her father and other co-conservators. In Ireland, they’re known as committees. The role is the same, however: the guardian is empowered to make personal and legal decisions, in what they deem to be the best interests of the person under guardianship. Human rights issues arise when a decision is made in the person’s ‘best interest’, but this does not align with the person under guardianship’s own wishes.
Zoe McCormack is a mental health advocate who works with Disabled Women Ireland. For her, the issue with wardships, and mental health in general in Ireland is that oftentimes the focus is very much on incorporating vulnerable people into the system, with very little regard for what happens once those people are enmeshed within its grip.
“I don't think we talk enough about what actually happens when you get there,” McCormack explains. “Problems exist in those systems when we get past that waiting list or eventually reach out for help, like the power and control that exists.”
Going by her testimony, power and control certainly seem to play a role in how Britney has been treated,. Never mind the IUD that was implanted against her will – the lithium which she testified was administered when she disagreed with her management, over the smallest of things like a particular choreography move, certainly seems motivated by a need to keep her controlled and docile.
“A lot of the time it would have been said to me and other patients, ‘This is for your own safety’,” McCormack adds. “This is very much happening to Britney as well. On the surface, the acts being carried out are for her wellbeing, but really, it’s about control. Britney doesn't have the power, and neither do patients. It's very much in the hands of other people.”
The legislation around wardships in Ireland has improved, with the Assisted Decision Making (Capacity) Act 2015 providing an updated structure around ‘involuntary procedures for the treatment of certain persons’, including wardships. According to de Bhailís, it’s moving towards a system of ‘assisted decision making’, or supported decision making, where the wishes of the ward are considered by those making decisions for them.
“The human rights standards internationally would agree that this next stage isn't fully human rights compliant either,” de Bhailís says, “because it still retains a level where somebody else can make decisions on your behalf. You're being stripped of your capacity. It's an improvement, because they're making them based on what they consider is your will, your likes, your dislikes – basically, what they think you would do. The issue is that it’s still somebody else doing it.”
Since June 23, the hashtag #NotJustBritney has been gaining momentum, highlighting the root causes that lead to the imposition of guardianship, the desire to control an individual's wealth, body, sexual and reproductive rights for example, and the intersection of disability and gender in these decisions. Britney Spears is by no means the only woman being denied reproductive autonomy, but the profile of her case is bringing new conversations to the fore about how many women with disabilities are stripped of the agency and bodily autonomy, in their ‘best interests’.
The high level of media interest surrounding Britney Spears’ conservatorship case is shining a light on these types of arrangements all over the world. Both de Bhailís and McCormack stressed the importance, however, of not simply writing off her situation as a classic case of an insidious guardian whose only goal is money.
“It's not just about having a dodgy guardian,” McCormack explains. “It's the whole system, that’s the problem. Her body is not her own. Her life is not her own. But she still has to follow all of these rules ‘for her own good’, when she's specifically telling her guardians that she doesn't agree with this medication. She wants her IUD out; she wants all of this to end. It's the conservatorship that we need to be questioning, rather than just the individuals involved.”
Conservatorships are incredibly hard to get out of. To be ‘released’, a person’s legal counsel must petition the court on their behalf to do bring the conservatorship to an end – but as with Britney’s case, oftentimes the conservatee isn’t kept informed of their rights and doesn’t know they can end it (another human rights violation committed in their ‘best interests’). They also have to undergo all of the same psychiatric assessments they were put through to commit them.
This can make getting out incredibly difficult for a host of reasons, according to de Bhaiís, including “the fact that if you've been through all this trauma, then you won't want to engage with them as much. And then they say, ‘Well, if you're not engaging, we're not going to let you out’.” She also pointed out that the lack of a trustworthy support system around Britney would work against her, as well as the sheer level of money involved. “Often, it's built to work against you.”
De Bhailís also expressed concern around certain recent developments, since Britney’s testimony. She believes it will be unlikely that Britney will be allowed to choose her own lawyer, after the resignation of her current court-appointed one, seeing as she has already been deemed incapable of doing so. She’s also not optimistic about Britney’s chances of getting the conservatorship lifted.
“There's a part of me that wants to be eternally hopeful, that she will get what she's asked for and she'll get out of that situation. But the realist in me thinks that she probably won't.”
• The next hearing in Britney Spear’s case will take place on July 14th.