While Sep. 29 will go down as a historic day in the 13-year conservatorship involving Britney Spears, given that the court has removed Jamie Spears as conservator, there is a much larger issue for which the clock is ticking. This issue is critical for anyone in California who is under a conservatorship — and its impact could be felt throughout the nation.
When Britney Spears, a conservatee under the laws of the state of California, was allowed in July by Judge Brenda Penny to hire her own lawyer, this was truly groundbreaking. Under California law and that of many other jurisdictions in the United States, a conservatee has no right to hire their own counsel.
Legally, the conservator essentially has the right of personhood over the conservatee. In other words, if the conservatee wants their own counsel and the conservator doesn’t want them to have their own counsel, not only will it not happen, it is as if the conservatee themselves asked for it not to happen.
While a legal reality, this is obviously only one of many logical fictions involved in conservatorship law. A new California Assembly bill, AB 1194, introduced by Assemblyman Evan Low (D-San Jose), seeks to address what conservatorship experts have called a grave injustice. Generally in conservatorships, the relationship between the conservator and conservatee is not subject to either as regular or as rigorous review as there should be given the gravity of what conservatorship entails.
One of the prongs of AB-1194 is actual training for those seeking to become a conservator. As was the case with Britney Spears, a family member was appointed as conservator. These are the most dangerous cases — the most ripe for financial abuse. Sometimes this is out of malice, and sometimes lack of knowledge and training is also a key issue. The new bill would provide for mandatory training in financial abuse as well as oversight of conservators, such as Jamie Spears, who are not financial professionals.
Another key feature of AB 1194 borrows from California Senate Bill 724, introduced by Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), which addresses a conservatee’s need to have adequate legal representation. This is also a key section of AB 1194 and it picks up from where Judge Penny’s decision in the Spears conservatorship left off.
Under AB 1194, which passed the assembly floor by a 76-0 vote on Sept. 9, a conservatee or a person who is alleged to lack the legal mental capacity to even ask for counsel, can express a preference — in other words, they can hire their own lawyer. This is a massively important decision. For Britney Spears, it would have meant that even as far back as 2008, when the conservatorship began, she could have asked for her own lawyer.
Sam Ingham, Britney’s court-appointed attorney for 13 years, was paid over $3 million for his services. AB 1194 would allow any conservatee the opportunity to ask for someone they feel could advocate for them, as long as the court finds no conflict of interest and meets the legal requirements for representation.
If Gov, Gavin Newsom signs AB 1194 into law, it will come into effect on Jan. 1. While the bill is quickly gathering steam on social media as a newly-trending topic, whether this will be enough to get action from the governor’s office remains to be seen.
In the final analysis, while removing Jamie Spears as Britney’s conservator is a critically important first step in ending her own conservatorship, if California’s AB 1194 becomes law, history will show that Britney Spears may have saved the lives of many other conservatees.
Aron Solomon, JD, is the chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital and the editor of Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in CBS News, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, and many other leading publications.