New documentary on legal arrangement, which gives singer’s father control over her estate, has prompted fresh calls to #FreeBritney
Britney Spears at the 29th annual Glaad Media Awards in Beverly Hills, California, 12 April 2018. Photograph: Valérie Macon/AFP/Getty Images
The Guardian-Sam Levin in Los Angeles
A Los Angeles judge has denied a request by Britney Spears’s father to retain some of his rights over the pop star’s estate, the latest twist in a protracted court struggle over the singer’s finances and guardianship.
The case centers on Spears’s conservatorship, a legal arrangement that has given her father, Jamie Spears, control over her estate, career and other aspects of her personal life, including medical treatment, for the past 13 years. The status hearing in an LA court on Thursday afternoon came days after a new documentary sparked widespread outrage about the court process and Jamie Spears’s role in the conservatorship.
In November, the judge in the case declined to remove Jamie, but added Bessemer Trust as a co-conservator and corporate fiduciary. At Thursday’s hearing, Jamie lost his bid to retain the power to delegate investment powers for the estate.
The judge, Brenda J Perry, denied his request, reaffirming that Jamie and Bessemer Trust remain co-conservators with equal authority. Spears’s lawyer reiterated that the singer did not want her father to be a co-conservator, but conceded that question may be revisited at a later date.
A lawyer for Spears did not respond to a request for comment after the hearing. On Thursday night, Vivian L Thoreen, Jamie’s attorney, praised the co-conservator arrangement, saying, “My client looks forward to working with Bessemer to continue an investment strategy in the best interests of his daughter.”
Thoreen said the probate court has “closely monitored Britney’s situation, including annual accountings and in-depth reviews and recommendations from a highly experienced and dedicated court investigator”, adding, “Jamie Spears has diligently and professionally carried out his duties as one of Britney’s conservators, and his love for his daughter and dedication to protecting her is clearly apparent to the court.”
The next hearing is scheduled for 17 March.
Conservatorship is a form of court-appointed guardianship that is typically used for elderly and infirm people, or others who cannot make decisions for themselves. The arrangement is often temporary, but Spears has remained under court control since her conservatorship was first adopted in 2008.
Spears’s conservatorship state has been controversial for years, but is facing new scrutiny following the release of Framing Britney Spears, a New York Times-produced documentary that raised questions about the fraught process that led the courts to institute the conservatorship, Jamie’s role as a conservator, the motives of Spears’s entourage in keeping the arrangement in place and the media’s treatment of the star.
The documentary chronicled Spears’s rise to fame amid intense abuse by paparazzi and media and the approval of the conservatorship at a time when American tabloids and news organizations were aggressively reporting on her mental health struggles.
It depicted Jamie as largely absent from his daughter’s life until he gained control of her finances, and detailed the circumstances around a judge’s 2008 decision to not allow the singer to choose her own lawyer. The film also included an interview with a lawyer who alleged that when he met with Spears in 2008, she told him she would accept the guardianship as long as her father was not the appointed conservator.
Framing Britney further raised questions about how the pop star could simultaneously be performing sold-out shows for her Las Vegas residency and making millions while also being considered incapable of making decisions about her finances and health.
And it raised poignant questions about American pop and media culture, surfacing archival footage of journalists asking inappropriate and invasive questions, paparazzi stalking her amid her mental breakdown, magazines maligning her during a high-profile breakup and talkshow hosts ridiculing her public struggles.
The film also featured the #FreeBritney movement, a fan-led campaign advocating for the singer to be freed from conservatorship and from her father’s control. Organizers said this week they hoped the reaction to the film would put pressure on the courts to restore the singer’s independence.
“It has lit a fire under all of us to keep pushing, because we do have that support from the general public,” Leanne Simmons, a #FreeBritney advocate who was featured in the documentary, told the Guardian. The 31-year-old, who works in post production in the film industry, has closely followed the court case and plans to attend the Thursday hearing in person. “We’ve been trying to get this message across for so many years, and to essentially have the narrative change overnight is pretty extraordinary.”
“It was hard to watch. It brought me back to that moment of watching this in realtime in 2007,” said Simmons. “I felt so frustrated back then like no one was listening to her, or to me when I would try to defend her. I can’t believe it took this long and this documentary for people to realize that it was always wrong.”
Representatives for Jamie’s lawyers declined to comment on the film on Wednesday, but have previously argued in court that he has been a good steward of her finances and that his removal would be detrimental to the singer. He has fought for court proceedings to remain secretive while Britney Spears’s lawyers have argued for greater transparency.
Spears publicly acknowledged the #FreeBritney movement for the first time last year, when her lawyer said in court that she was “trying to regain some measure of personal autonomy” and that she “welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans”.
She hasn’t directly commented on Thursday’s hearing or the film, but on Tuesday she shared video on Instagram and Twitter of an old performance, writing, “I’ll always love being on stage … but I am taking the time to learn and be a normal person,” adding, “Each person has their story and their take on other people’s stories !!!! … Remember, no matter what we think we know about a person’s life it is nothing compared to the actual person living behind the lens.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting