Will Britney Spears make the world rethink conservatorships?

Her case raises uncomfortable questions for us all about how we think about mental health and protective court orders

Britney Spears supporters Dustin Strand, left, and Kiki Norberto, both of Phoenix, hold signs outside a court hearing concerning the pop singer's conservatorship at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
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The California court judgment over the future of the conservatorship governing Britney Spears’s personal and professional life exposed many things, including the apparent gilded cage that has confined the star performer’s movements for years, the power of the #FreeBritney movement to shed light on the nature of that arrangement and the animosity that courses through the familial disagreement that lies at the heart of the case.

The star’s plea to the court to have the conservatorship removed was both compelling and distressing. Speaking via videoconference, Spears said it was doing her more harm than good and that she deserved to “have a life”. She said she felt bullied and alone. She said she was traumatised, depressed and unable to sleep.

Spears also told the hearing that she was forced to perform on stage, denied access to support and had been prescribed medications that left her impaired. There was more besides. The devastating drip-drip of these assertions built an extremely uncomfortable picture.

Only the day before the hearing, Spears was reported to have described herself as a victim of conservatorship abuse during a call to emergency services, according to The New Yorker.

In the end, the request to cancel the conservatorship was denied because the star had not formally appealed for the arrangement to end. Usually a written notification is required to do so, alongside presentations to the court.

The judgment appeared to confirm that conservatorships, or powers of attorney as they are often called in other parts of the world, can be so protective in some cases that they are nearly impossible to unpick once locked into place.

Traditional agreements of this nature apply when a person is not capable of making decisions on their own. The threshold for their use is typically that the person concerned has lost mental capacity, such as in the case of someone who has been diagnosed with a degenerative disease of the brain or if someone is temporarily incapacitated after an accident. But this does not currently apply to Spears, who was said to be cogent and lucid during her appearance. These orders are also meant to be protective rather than extractive or exploitative, which is another point of contention at the centre of this battle.

The judgment also highlighted the significant gap between the growing global ambition to break the taboos of mental health and the reality of actually doing so, especially when legal arguments have to be made.

Britney Spears's experience with mental health issues has been covered widely by the global media. Reuters
There is a significant gap between global ambition to break mental health taboos and the reality of actually doing so

While there is greater understanding than ever before that mental health is health, plain and simple – and that, just as you will need to seek surgery to fix a broken limb, so you will need help to treat stress or depression – there also remains a lopsided view of the healing power of traditional health care as opposed to the capabilities of therapy.

If rehabilitation after surgery is considered as a finite process with a beginning, middle and end – and one with a high probability of success – far too many people still view therapy as a ceaseless process with no sense of lasting remission. In short, society applies no detriment to the notion of corrective surgery, but is likely to penalise, consciously or subconsciously, those who seek or require help to recover from a personal issue.

In Spears’s case, the punishment for her crisis in the late 2000s appears to be the indefinite application of a conservatorship controlling her life, career and finances in the 2020s. That is a disproportionate price to pay.

She has won widespread support, with several famous names backing the singer, following her virtual court appearance. The scenario has since been clouded by her long-time manager Larry Rudolph announcing his intention to step down from his role, as he firmly believed the performer was on the cusp of retiring, effectively making his position redundant. Only time will tell if his pronouncement is a carefully orchestrated move in a longer legal battle or driven by facts on the ground.

Some experts believe that the procedural hurdle that stopped Spears’s court challenge will be overcome in time. Already, the Bessemer Trust, the body that acted as co-conservator alongside Spears’s father, Jamie, says it wants to respect Britney’s wishes and stop managing the estate. The logic goes that if a request is now made to terminate the conservatorship it will be heard favourably, particularly given Spears’s powerful address to the court.

All told, her case raises uncomfortable questions for every one of us.

The labels we apply to someone who may have experienced a personal issue need to become much more nuanced. The notion of how we talk about therapy and recovery and what it means only carries us so far forward and can have far larger consequences if misused, or when protective orders ostensibly grounded in safety and wellbeing become restraining and restrictive. Conservatorship agreements may also need more careful trigger-and-release clauses to ensure they always act in good faith for the person they are applied to, and so that they also hold those who have power to account.

And finally, while some will enjoy the theatre of this battle – Spears’s life has fuelled tabloid media sales for decades and that coverage has only recently shown any great compassion – all the answers probably lie in mediation, negotiation and reconciliation. A longer public legal battle helps no one.

Published: July 08, 2021, 8:00 AM