Like plenty of the music-loving public, I watched The New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears this weekend. Then I watched it again. Then, I started researching conservatorships online, trying to understand what was really going on in the life of one of America’s most beloved and embattled pop stars. I certainly wasn’t alone in this reaction, as celebrities, the fans who initially started the #FreeBritney movement, and newcomers, just learning about the situation, all began to share their sadness and horror about the way she was treated over a decade ago, and the terrible situation she’s still in today.
Despite whatever impact the media, paparazzi, misogyny, grifters like Sam Lutfi, and the pressure of fame might’ve had on Britney back in 2008, the real concern about her situation right now stems from the conservatorship established by her father for the last thirteen years. The average American probably isn’t aware what a conservatorship is, or how they’re used in the legal system, but veteran lawyer Lisa MacCarley, who has worked in Los Angeles probate courts and executing conservatorships for her entire career, is an expert on both the proper use of the status and how it can be abused. Since 2019, MacCarley has been devoting herself to probate court reform, founding the charity Bettys’ Hope to raise awareness about the rampant abuse in this area, and noting how the LA courts, in particular, leave room for corruption.
MacCarley participated in interviews for the Framing Britney documentary, but ultimately wasn’t included in the film. She said she was grateful for being allowed to participate and remains “in awe” of director Ms. Stark’s brilliant documentary. Lisa and I spoke over the phone earlier this week about her background in law and conservatorships, how the legal status can be abused, and why Britney Spears doesn’t need one.
Can you begin by telling me a little bit about your background as a lawyer and particularly your expertise on conservatorship?
There was never a day in my professional career where I was not involved in conservatorship and probate work. I went to Loyola Law School to be a probate and conservatorship attorney back in the 1980s. I understood that there would be an opportunity to help families dealing with very difficult problems related to aging, relating to lack of capacity. When I was attending, my name was Lisa Brown, and I went with a pair of lawyers named MacCarley and Rosen, and married Mark MacCarley. The other partner, Walter Rosen, had known me since I was a child. So they had mentored me and talked to me about this.
I’ve represented numerous professional fiduciaries throughout my career, many family members. I used to be on the panel to represent people facing conservatorship, but I intentionally stopped doing that because of cases like the Britney Spears matter. I have earned a living for the last thirty years involved in the probate courts, and in these proceedings representing the very wealthy, the very poor, and people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. So if I did twenty a year for the last few decades, I’ve been involved in several hundred conservatorship cases.
What is the purpose of a conservatorship when it is a good or a useful thing?
There are actually three different types of conservatorship. First, there’s the mental health court that handles situations relating to mental illness. They have a very different set of rules and work out of what’s called the Welfare and Institutions Code. The probate code is really meant for people that have age-related ailments like dementia that affect their ability to take care of themselves. That relates to conservatorship of the person, and I can actually read the statute: “For someone who is unable to provide properly for his or her own personal needs for health, food, closing, or shelter.”
Conservator of the estate is for someone who is substantially unable to manage his or her own financial resources or resist fraud or undue influence. This could be someone who has had a traumatic brain injury because of an accident, I have a couple of cases like that. But most often, it’s for an older adult who may have not done estate planning or who didn’t do estate planning well. That’s another problem. So they require an adult, another person, or entity to come in and be a surrogate decision-maker. It’s supposed to be a way of protecting people who are no longer competent to make decisions for themselves.
When did Britney’s legal situation first come to attention in relationship to the conservatorship?
What’s happening to Britney is an exaggerated and distorted miscarriage of justice, but these types of situations are not unusual. In fact, throughout the country there is a small grassroots movement to reform our probate courts and take back the courts so that they function properly. Because there’s so much dysfunction — here’s so many problems, so many cases of varying degrees of injustices. Families being separated. Elderly women with dementia being kept away from their children, for example, because judges don’t understand what’s going on. The probate bar doesn’t really have any type of curriculum or training.
I’ve actually been advocating, prior to COVID, trying to bring to light to the need for probate court reform. When COVID hit, it just shut everything down. No politician wanted to meet with me. No more follow-up phone calls, nothing. So in the middle of this, I became very sad and depressed, there’s so much injustice, and suddenly nobody cared anymore. One of the #FreeBritney advocates, Kevin Wu, had heard about the things I’d been doing pre-COVID, and he reached out asking if I’d be willing to come to a #FreeBritney rally. Honestly, I didn’t think anything of it except I would go to help support the cause and support them.
When I arrived, he handed me the megaphone, and asked if I wanted to say anything? I think in that moment, I was so angry and frustrated and sad, and I just kind of started screaming, like letting loose all this pent up emotion. Little did I know that I was pretty much nailing everything that has gone wrong for Britney Spears. Seeing these young people respond so positively, I was amazed. Because I always thought this fight would be way too sad and way too boring for anybody to care.
Then they started sending me the documents they had on her case, and I just couldn’t even believe what I was reading. I still can’t even believe what has gone on. I found out about Adam Streisand, and that was like, what in the world is going on here? So I began really looking at their mission, and I began to talk to them about probate court reform. I told them how important it is that they bring these issues to light. The #FreeBritney movement is going to save lives. And we’re getting there. People are finally paying attention to the unconstitutional conservatorship of Britney Spears. It’s terrifying.
Can you stress why the discovery of Adam Streisand’s role was so important for your legal understanding of what happened to her?
In our legal system, there’s the basic premise of all of our laws regarding the loss or deprivation of liberty or property. This is called due process. Our California constitution and the United States Constitution provide very clearly that everyone is entitled to a fair process, an unbiased judge, and most importantly, your own attorney. I was shocked because I had never seen before that when James Spears’ attorneys filed the packet of paperwork to commence the conservatorship on February 1, 2008, they literally prepared an order for the judge to sign nominating Sam Ingham as Britney Spears’ attorney. I’ve never seen that before. It still shocks me that I’m even saying it. But what was worse was when I found out that Britney had picked for herself a very good attorney, Adam Streisand, and Adam Streisand shows up and says, “I’m representing Britney.” And Judge Reva Goetz, says, “No, we’ve decided that Britney Spears doesn’t have capacity to retain her counsel.”
There is no such thing. That’s absolutely false, absolutely wrong, absolutely a violation. Unethical. But it even gets worse than that. Apparently, Sam Ingham had written some kind of report, or he was one of the two who had written a report, basically saying that Britney Spears didn’t have the capacity to retain counsel. Which is, again, another ethical violation as well. But the problem is that the judges are untouchable. There’s nothing that you can do when a judge goes off the charts, and does what Reva Goetz did. What these attorneys all know is that in probate court, the judges control your fees, so they control your income, and they will retaliate. This court of appeals doesn’t help. There’s no place to go for recourse when a judge does things that Reva Goetz did.
What is the most concerning aspect to you about Britney’s current conservatorship?
Obviously this is an abusive conservatorship. What is the evidence of that? Number one, Britney Spears’ boyfriend publicly saying “Jamie Spears is a d*ck.” It’s a logical jump to say that at least in her boyfriend’s opinion, Britney is not being treated right. We know that she’s on a work hiatus for one or two years. She didn’t go back to doing her residency in Las Vegas, and to this day, and this is the part that makes me really pissed off, there’s still no petition to remove Jamie Spears. Then, going back to her lawyer Sam Ingham, he’s actually come to court and said, “Britney’s afraid of her father.” Seriously, that’s the guy who’s her conservator? How much more evidence do we need of this being an abusive conservatorship? There is no way this conservatorship should go on another 24 hours, if there was any decency in any of their minds. I’m furious, and that’s why I wrote the email that I wrote.
I got in touch with you via that email you wrote to other lawyers in LA, urging them to protest Britney’s conservatorship. How does it help the case to have other legal professionals lobbying against this?
Because we all do work in a small enough community that everybody knows what’s going on. And I actually sent that email not only to my colleagues in private practice, but I sent it to a couple of attorneys that work for the court in the system, who are very much aware of what these procedures are. The fact that they wouldn’t even let her have the paperwork (detailing her conservatorship decision) is just incredible. I can’t even believe that the court-appointed attorney went along with that, that he thought that was a good idea. That’s incredible to me in terms of being a miscarriage of justice.
As lawyers, we take an oath to uphold the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the State of California. The first sentence of the constitution of the State of California says “No one should be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” That’s the first line in the constitution. What’s the point in taking that oath if it doesn’t mean something to you in terms of what is happening in a courtroom? They can absolutely call the court. They can absolutely call the state bar. They can absolutely say, between what’s on the case summary and what Adam Streisand said in this documentary, her constitutional rights were violated. It’s not even a close call. We don’t even have to speculate about what’s going on, we know.
You called the conservatorship abusive. Would you also call it illegal?
Yes, unlawful. It’s unconstitutional. They violated the very basic notion of her constitutional rights. They did everything wrong. It was almost like they looked for ways to do it wrong. She couldn’t have her own attorney. They appointed the judge’s favorite crony, Sam Ingham. This was all a setup. It was well known in the Los Angeles probate court at the time that Sam Ingham and his office cohort, Jackson Chen, were the judge’s favorite attorneys, and especially Judge Reva Goetz’s favorites. Judge Reva Goetz had a great fondness and bias towards Sam Ingham and Jackson Chen. Sam Ingham actually had the audacity at some point to say “I specialize in celebrity conservatorship.” It’s just cronyism.
Does Britney need a conservatorship?
No, I don’t think she’s needed one forever. Does she need people to help her? Yes. Does she need mature women around her? Yes. I wouldn’t let a man near her, except for her boyfriend and her sons, obviously. But, yes. She needs help. Does she need a conservatorship? Didn’t seem that way to me, given the way she’s able to perform and everything else.
Lots of public figures are beginning to speak out after watching the documentary. How can people with large platforms best help Britney?
Put pressure on the politicians, the attorney general in the state of California. Xavier Becerra is on his way out, and I believe I heard Adam Schiff might be coming in as the AG. Put pressure on the politicians. Let them know that this is a hyper-exaggerated situation of injustice, but all they have to do is open up their eyeballs, and they’ll see that it’s an emerging crisis in our probate court. So they need to fix this, and fix it now.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Give credit to the young people. Their love for Britney is just amazing to me, their passion and their compassion. Thank goodness for this group of people that saw through this. She’s able to function. She doesn’t need a conservator. I would definitely want to give the young people all the credit. They are brilliant and so intuitive. This is a love story. Right? It’s a beautiful love story about young people that just felt so strongly about Britney Spears, they were not going to let her be treated unjustly.