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Britney Spears' conservatorship hearing could create change in the system as a whole

Allowing Spears to choose her own counsel could create systemic change since ABC10 has found this is a rarity in probate courts statewide.

LOS ANGELES — In a rare move, a Los Angeles probate court allowed Britney Spears to choose her own counsel for her conservatorship hearings.

"Today is very significant because what Judge Penny said is, 'I respect the [United States] Constitution," Lisa MacCarley said. "So, it's a good day."

MacCarley, a Los Angeles attorney, has been beating the pavement for years, advocating for change in California's conservatorship system.

"I've been advocating all by myself, but not really, there have been a few of us that have been trying to bring attention to the dysfunctional probate court system for quite a while," MacCarley said.

Today that few, has turned into an army.

It wasn't until a worldwide force of Britney Spears fans caught wind of the legal system controlling the pop icon's life as well as her $60 million estate that the term "conservatorship" became spotlighted. Today they've become known as the Free Britney movement, formed from passionate, emblazed fans across the world, determined to use their voice to help an idol they grew up influenced by, listened to and watched.

Their advocacy is what MacCarley credits for shining a light on Spears. 

"I think they've changed the world," she said.

While Spears may have the spotlight, her situation has also pushed forward narrative of a bigger picture of what many believe is a broken legal system that can, and has, taken advantage of America's most vulnerable demographics: those who are unable to care for themselves. That includes our elderly and those with disabilities.

VIDEO: Free Britney Movement leader explains why Britney was not able to choose her lawyer from the start

ABC10 has been investigating conservatorships for over a year, releasing our five-part series "The Price of Care," in May 2021.

The sentiment advocates shared throughout the course of our investigation is that Spears has brought attention to the problem with conservatorships, and therefore the possibility of change. Many of the advocates told ABC10 that "the elderly aren't sexy," and that "no one cares about grandma," which is why they believe change has not happened yet.

The conservatorship process is something that may be quickly impacting more and more as the elderly population is expected to increase in what is referred to as the "Silver Tsunami," a term for the aging baby boomer generation. 

What happened in Spears' hearing

But Wednesday's hearing proved Spears' conservatorship proceedings could create change for everyone in the system as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge allowed Spears to choose her own counsel, a move that ABC10 has found is a rarity in probate courts statewide.

Spears was permitted to select attorney Mathew Rosengart, a prominent Los Angeles attorney and former federal prosecutor, after her court-appointed attorney, Sam Ingham, resigned following her explosive testimony calling the conservatorship "abusive" in a June 23 hearing. Ingham had been appointed to represent Spears in 2008.

Court-appointed attorneys and conflict of interest

In our year-long investigation, nearly every conservatorship we reviewed had a court-appointed attorney assigned to represent the conservatee. Court-appointed attorneys are supposed to serve as an unbiased party and represent the best interest of their client.

Our investigation found a pattern in Sacramento County of court-appointed attorneys representing proposed conservators, then conservatees with the same proposed conservator in other cases, posing the question of conflict of interest.

For Spears' case, MacCarley believes Ingham did not serve in Spears' best interest because in her June 23 hearing she alleged the conservatorship allowed control over her life, even controlling her cell phone and isolating her.

"This is really extreme and I don't understand why Mr. Ingham, the court-appointed lawyer, would've gone along with all of this," MacCarley said.

On a statewide level, MacCarley said that while court-appointed attorneys are used in conservatorship cases in all counties, it's not supposed to be that way.

"What many people don't realize and strangely enough, not even some judges [realize], is that the use of court-appointed counsel was meant as a back-up. It was never meant to be the go-to move by the judicial officers," she said. "There are no laws and never have been any laws that would allow a judge to fire an attorney of the conservatee's choice and replace them with a court-appointed attorney."

MacCarley believes these things are happening because the judges are muddled with issues of fraud, other influences and capacity, making them struggle to do the job they need to do.

"I have a lot of empathy for what they're trying to do," she said. "There's just too many facts, too many cases and not enough guidance by our legal representatives."

MacCarley said the whole issue of court-appointed counsel should be reviewed. She believes a solution could be through the creation of separate lawyers to be specifically trained, supervised and held accountable "whenever they represent a person facing or in conservatorships." 

She said this could be modeled after other court systems already in place.

"We do that for children in dependency court. We do that for criminals...that's what the entire public defenders office is all about," MacCarley said. "It's time we address that we have to have separate judges appointing, assigning, selecting favorites and then doling out the money because these dynamics are clearly not working for people from coast-to-coast."

With Spears being allowed to select her own representation, MacCarley believes it's not just a turning point for her case but for possible change in the system as a whole. The "Toxic" singer's situation, while allegedly abusive, is also helping influence legislation as well as could potentially influence other judicial officers to take extra measures to ensure conservatees' wishes are being executed the way they want.

Watch The Price of Care: Investigating California Conservatorships here.