What will happen now Britney Spears is free from the 13-year conservatorship?
On Friday 12 November 2021, a judge in Los Angeles terminated the controversial conservatorship which had allowed Britney Spears’ father to manage her financial and personal affairs for 13 years. Now that Britney is free from the conservatorship, will she sue her father for alleged abuse of the conservatorship and could something similar happen in the UK?
Following concerns over Britney’s mental health, her father petitioned a Los Angeles court to be appointed as her conservator. A conservatorship is a court-appointed role governed by state law in the US, giving a conservator the power to manage an individual’s personal affairs or financial estate when the individual lacks capacity to do so. Britney’s 13-year conservatorship has been the subject of much controversy and Britney’s testimony that the conservatorship left her feeling exploited and traumatised is concerning.
Following termination of the conservatorship, Britney’s lawyers have indicated that they will be investigating potential abuse of the conservatorship. This may include scrutiny of the substantial salary that Britney’s father was paid in his role as her conservator, as well as the considerable expenses and legal fees that the role generated at Britney’s personal expense.
Could a similar situation arise in the UK?
A conservatorship is similar to a deputyship in England and Wales, which is a court-appointed role governed by the Mental Capacity Act 2005. A deputy has the power to make financial and health-related decisions for a person who lacks mental capacity (the Person). A deputy may be appointed where the Person fails to grant powers of attorney while they still have capacity. A deputy is required to act within the scope of their powers set out in the court order and in accordance with five statutory principles. In addition, the deputy is required to take all practical steps to encourage the Person to make decisions themselves and all decisions that the deputy makes should be in the Person’s best interests.
Crucially, both a conservator and a deputy owe fiduciary duties to the Person not to profit from or take advantage of their role and not to let their personal interests conflict with their duties as a deputy.
There are lots of checks and balances in England and Wales which are designed to minimise the risk of a deputy abusing their position. A deputy must file annual reports with the Office of the Public Guardian listing the significant financial decisions that they have made, listing any expenses incurred (which must be reasonable) and explaining how the Person was involved in making those decisions. Professional deputies can only receive remuneration with the court’s permission and are required to file annual reports setting out their fees, which will be assessed by the Senior Courts Costs Office.
Whilst deputies are subject to regular scrutiny, deputyship abuse can still occur and prompt action should be taken if any abuse is suspected.
What action can be taken if a deputy is suspected of abusing their position?
If a deputy appears to be exploiting their position for their own financial gain or is otherwise making decisions that do not appear to be in the Person’s best interests, the Office of the Public Guardian should be alerted without delay and you may need to report the matter to the police. The OPG will investigate and make recommendations which can include an application to the Court of Protection to have the deputy or attorney removed. The Court of Protection can decide to revoke a deputyship in favour of an appropriate replacement deputy and a replacement deputy or a personal representative can issue proceedings against the rogue deputy for breach of trust and / or recovery of misappropriated funds.
We have particular expertise advising on such matters. If you have any concerns that a deputy or attorney may be abusing their position, please do not hesitate to contact us.