SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After 13 years under a conservatorship, a judge allowed Britney Spears to choose her own attorney.
This came in July 2021 after her former court-appointed attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, resigned. He was one of many connected to the case who abruptly distanced themselves amidst growing heat from a movement of fans as the "Free Britney" movement garnered the spotlight of media attention.
Spears was quick to select Mathew S. Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor turned prominent Los Angeles attorney. Since enlisting Rosengart in her corner, Spears' life has changed drastically with her father's removal as conservator of estate, an engagement to longtime boyfriend Sam Asghari and Spears' increasingly using her own voice and denouncing the conservatorship.
It's something that seems like a basic right for anyone, let alone a superstar, being able to choose your own legal counsel — someone who will stand for you and you alone.
"Ethically and by law, you are supposed to advocate for the expressed wishes of your client," said Thomas F. Coleman, an attorney as well as Executive & Legal Director of Spectrum Institute, an organization dedicated to conservatorship reform.
The right to counsel is part of the United States Constitution, as due process protects the right to choose your own attorney. It's also written in California's probate code, the regulations that guide conservatorship proceedings.
Yet, despite being a basic right, ABC10's nearly two-year and ongoing investigation into conservatorships found that the right to choose your counsel, and even have counsel, doesn't always happen in many conservatorship cases across California.
Coleman believes the reason attorneys are appointed through the court rather than adhering to a client's wishes is part of something ABC10 has covered previously in our investigation: the "Good Old Boys' Club."
"I think sometimes it happens because the attorney that the person brings in to represent them isn't part of the 'good old boys' network... isn't part of the system," Coleman said. "And so the judge is thinking, 'Oh boy, this attorney is going to make waves.'"
Making waves in court could mean a number of things, including demanding hearings and/or demanding jury trials. All of those take time, something that judges don't have.
Probate courts throughout California are overloaded. Conservatorship petitions are often cycled through, being appointed and taking away someone's rights, in just minutes.
"The best way to make them go away is to have the attorneys surrender the rights, rubber stamp it, feed them into a conservatorship and go on to the next case," Coleman said.
But on Jan. 1, 2022, this process should change.
"Governor Newsom has just signed AB 1194 [which] deals with conservatorship reform. Part of that deals with attorney reform," Coleman said. "It requires judges to allow the person to have the attorney of their choice. No ifs, ands or buts."
Some individuals who may be placed under a conservatorship sometimes lack the money or mental capacity to hire their own attorney. AB 1194 would change that, too.
"The next thing it says (is) if the person doesn't have an attorney of their choice, the court must appoint an attorney," Coleman said, adding prior to this, it was "discretionary" courts appoint an attorney, despite being written into the probate code.
It's one of the many things the conservatorship bill aims at reforming. Other changes include creating communication between courts and the Professional Fiduciary Bureau, the only state-agency entrusted in overseeing fiduciaries — including ones that serve as conservators.
The bill will also require more transparency, like requiring more specific data on the number of conservatorships statewide to be reported. And more requirements will be demanded from court investigators, like talking to first-degree family members prior to the appointment of a conservatorship.
But it's not the first piece of legislation that has made an attempt to create change in this multi-billion dollar industry that controls the lives and money of others.
In 2007, a reform act was passed in California, and was nearly identical in many ways to AB 1194, but failed to change anything. Additionally, multiple former court investigators who spoke with ABC10 for our initial Price of Care investigation said the reform act put too many additional responsibilities on investigators making their jobs more difficult and allowed conservatorship cases to slip through the cracks.
And changes haven't been attempted to this system only in California. In fact, the American Bar Association said since 2011, U.S. states have enacted approximately 343 adult guardianship bills.
But issues continue to arise, something that has been spotlighted by Spears and the movement behind her, educating many for the first time on what exactly conservatorships are and how powerful they can be.
"I must confess, this issue was put back onto our radar when the Free Britney documentary was released," Assemblymember Evan Low said when presenting his bill, AB 1194, to the California Assembly Business and Professions Committee, a committee tasked with overseeing the Professional Fiduciary Bureau.
Low went on to say after conducting their own research on conservatorship laws, his office found the 2007 reform effort did not create change due to the "toxic economic recession that started in 2008."
When asked how his bill, AB 1194, would implement the needed change to this system, Low said, "As part of the legislative proposals that we have too is ensuring we have the policies that are supported and making sure the resources to empower local communities to implement the law."
For other activists, they believe it's a step in the right direction, but the first of many needed.
"There's no magic wand approach. It's not instant reform," Coleman said. "AB 1194 is a tool that's going to help those of us that are committed to this reform keep pushing, step by step."
To learn more about the conservatorship process, you can watch ABC10's year-long investigation, The Price of Care: Investigating California Conservatorships here. For more information on how to protect yourself and your loved ones, ensuring your wishes are conducted the way you desire, you can access our resources article here.
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