What’s next in Britney Spears’ messy legal conservatorship battle?
After 13 years of being silenced, Britney Spears‘ voice has been heard around the world. Following scathing testimony in Los Angeles on June 23 when the Princess of Pop told the judge her conservatorship is “abusive,” Spears gave her second voluntary testimony this summer, speaking to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge on July 14 and once again slamming her father, Jamie Spears, who has been her sole conservator since she was placed under the court-ordered arrangement in 2008.
“I’m here to get rid of my dad and charge him for conservatorship abuse,” Spears told Judge Brenda Penny at her latest hearing.
READ MORE: What’s going on with Britney Spears?
While Spears’ heartfelt pleas have rallied global support for the #FreeBritney movement, terminating her conservatorship won’t be easy, despite a major legal victory this past week in which Spears was granted her own lawyer — power lawyer Mathew Rosengart, who has represented Steven Spielberg and Sean Penn.
“It’s certainly a strong step in the right direction towards termination of the conservatorship, or certainly modification,” says lawyer Scott Rahn, founder and managing partner at RMO LLP in Los Angeles, who specialises in estates and conservatorships. “But there’s a road ahead, and it could be a long, winding path or it could be a short one.”
There’s been more movement in Spears’ situation over the past month than there’s been in more than a decade: Spears’ manager of 25 years, Larry Rudolph, quit; her court-appointed lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, resigned; and wealth management firm Bessemer Trust pulled out as co-conservator. But all parties involved will have to consent to terminate the conservatorship; if they don’t, the case will likely end up in a complex trial that will bring depositions from dozens of caretakers and medical experts who have interacted with the singer over the course of 13 years.
“If somebody objects to termination, the reality is you’re looking at potentially a year before a trial,” Rahn says. “My sense is that this is just the beginning.”
During both of her explosive statements, Spears told the judge she refused to be evaluated again and demanded to be freed from her conservatorship. According to numerous legal experts, that scenario is highly unlikely.
“To start a conservatorship, you need a doctor or psychologist to say that the potential conservatee is suffering and cannot make decisions for him or herself. You need the same kind of expert testimony to get out,” says family law attorney and former clinical psychologist David Glass.
Sources close to the singer say the first step, before requesting to terminate, is working to remove Spears’ father — which her lawyer has pledged to do immediately.
“My firm and I are moving aggressively and expeditiously to file a petition to remove Jamie Spears unless he resigns first,” Rosengart told reporters outside Stanley Mosk Courthouse on July 19, after a hearing over a money dispute between Spears’ father, who controls her estate, and temporary conservator Jodi Montgomery, who manages her day-to-day well-being, as conservator of her person. As the conservators go head to head, this latest hiccup in Spears’ case does not directly impact the singer, but highlights the messiness of her conservatorship. (The next court date on the matter is set for July 26.)
In spite of Spears’ claims of abuse, at this time, the court has not investigated whether her father has breached any of his fiduciary duties in his role as sole conservator. But experts say the court could temporarily suspend him, as an interim solution, just to get rid of the attention surrounding the highly publicised case. (Spears, who told a judge in June that she wants to sue her family and wants her conservators to be in jail, also seems to have had a falling out with her sister, former Nickelodeon actress Jamie Lynn Spears, who she mentioned in an Instagram post this past week weekend, with a photo that read: “My so-called support system hurt me deeply.”)
“Her wanting to have a voice has played an important part in what we’re seeing,” Rahn explains of the momentum in Spears’ conservatorship case. “The court always wants to hear from the conservatee because through this process, you’re essentially asking the court to put somebody else in charge of somebody else’s life and that’s not something they take lightly.”
Despite the heightened public interest and global outrage over the allegations in Spears’ blistering testimony, the probate court will handle the pop icon’s case, just as it would any other conservatorship — without special treatment. “The court can’t just take the client’s word,” says Glass.
But, Spears’ case is highly unusual with no direct point of comparison, given her international fame, her ability to work and make hundreds of millions of dollars while under conservatorship, and her age. (Most conserved individuals are elderly and die during the duration of their conservatorship, so there is rarely a need to terminate the conservatorship.)
“If there wasn’t sufficient evidence to demonstrate to the court why there was a need for a conservatorship originally, the court would have never instituted it,” says Rahn, who is completely unaffiliated with Spears and has never met the singer or worked on this particular case. “From Britney’s own words of not wanting to be poked-and-prodded any longer, from my understanding, there have been evaluations ordered, and the results of those evaluations seemed to have supported the ongoing needs and basis for conservatorship, opposed to terminating it or modifying it.”
The trusts and estates lawyer adds: “We hear a lot about this case, but we actually know very little because the file is sealed. We can’t speculate because we don’t know.”
Despite the potential legal obstacles ahead, that momentum is encouraging for #FreeBritney fans, who have been dedicated to Spears’ cause for years and have pushed through the noise of being called conspiracy theorists when they first said the star was being held against her will.
“Nothing is going to change about this corrupt conservatorship without public outrage,” says Kevin Wu, a #FreeBritney activist who held a rally at the courthouse at Spears’ first public hearing.
Another fan, Dustin Strand, who was present at both of the recent Los Angeles hearings, spoke to Variety outside the courthouse last week. “We’ve been pushing for this for so long,” he said after Judge Penny granted the singer her own lawyer. “To hear that Mathew Rosengart is here to help Britney, makes me feel so much better — like a weight has been lifted off my chest.”
Following the July 14 hearing, Spears took to Instagram to thank her fans and say her case is “coming along,” gleefully noting that she has “real representation” now. That Instagram post marked the first time ever that the singer used the hashtag #FreeBritney.
“Now that she’s really lent her voice to the movement, she’s made all the big steps for us, and we’ve all been able to come so far in the past couple of months,” says her fan, Strand.
Rosengart thanked the fans in a brief impromptu press conference outside the courthouse on July 19.
“I, once again, want to thank Britney Spears for her courage and for her strength,” her new lawyer said. “I want to thank Judge Penny for her courtesy in welcoming my firm and I into this case. … And I also want to thank Britney Spears fans and supporters. The outreach and support for my firm, myself and most importantly, Britney, has truly been overwhelming from coast to coast, and literally throughout the world.”
Though the global outpouring has kept Spears’ case in the headlines for the past month, constantly drumming up continuous support for the star, the role the media and the fans play in swaying a legal decision is “minimal at best,” according to Rahn. “Public opinion and news reports are simply not evidence,” the lawyer adds. “Courts don’t make decision on emotion. Courts make decisions by applying law to facts.”
Still, it’s impossible to deny the renewed interest in Spears’ case following the spotlight put on the conservatorship from the fans and journalists covering the case, including the New York Times-produced doc Framing Britney Spears, recently nominated for two Emmys.
“We felt it was in the public interest to expose as much as we can about what’s really been going on,” says the doc’s director, Samantha Stark. “But no one could ever tell us what has been happening to her for the past 13 years better than Britney Spears herself — and she certainly delivered.”