I have provided immediately below a snapshot from a September 3, 2020, Today article headline on Yahoo Entertainment relating to the Britney Spears conservatorship, and a request that the conservatorship case be made open to the public.
Although the length of time that the conservatorship has been in place really has nothing to do with the issues in the case – nevertheless, although the conservatorship has been in place for 12 years, other than news stories, which might or might not be entirely accurate and for the most part do not contain a full discussion or a discussion from the legal perspective, it has been very difficult if not impossible to determine what legal arguments have been made, the actual evidence that has been presented, and the basis for the court’s rulings in the case. Will that be changing in the future . . . well, we don’t know, but it might be.
More and more headlines about the case are now appearing in the news, and they raise interesting legal issues as they pertain to conservatorships and court proceedings in general. Historically there have been few California appellate decisions relating to conservatorship proceedings and conservatee rights, but that has slowing been changing. For example, in more recent California appellate court conservatorship cases it has been held that in a conservatorship there is a right to a jury trial (at least on the issue of whether or not there should be a conservatorship) whereas in probate court cases in general there is no such right, and at least on conservatorship issues that involve fundamental rights the burden of proof that is applied is clear and convincing (which is a heightened standard, that requires stronger evidence before the limitation is justified and can be ordered).
Although different courts have used different wording to describe various burdens of proof, the following descriptions have been used:
- The preponderance of the evidence burden is essentially more likely than not.
- The beyond a reasonable doubt burden is designed to exclude as nearly as possible the likelihood of an erroneous judgment and imposes almost the entire risk of error upon the party bearing the burden of proof.
- The clear and convincing burden is an intermediate standard that increases the burden on the party seeking relief requiring a finding of high probability, based on evidence so clear as to leave no substantial doubt and sufficiently strong to command the unhesitating assent of every reasonable mind.
Another requirement in a conservatorship is that the court, and thus also the parties, must consider whether there are workable options that are less restrictive than a conservatorship, or that are less restrictive than a full conservatorship, or that are less restrictive with respect to some of the issues and the prospective conservatee or conservatee’s alleged needs, limitations and deficiencies. Whether or not there is a conservatorship, or whether a conservatorship continues and in what form and under what authorities, rights and restrictions, is not supposed to be based on a medical or other diagnosis – it is based on actual needs, limitations and deficiencies that are established based on the factual evidence pertaining to the prospective conservatee or conservatee’s abilities to act and make decisions on behalf of herself or himself and to protect herself or himself and her or his interests, and the limitations therein that exist.
In that regard, facts and circumstances can change over time; thus, when a conservatorship is granted, that conservatorship also is scheduled for review by the court to determine whether facts and circumstances or the conservatee’s abilities and needs have changed. An interested person who has sufficient standing also can file a petition requesting that some or all of the aspects of the conservatorship be changed, including a request that the conservatorship be terminated, or that other changes be made.
Regarding whether the case is open to the public, the general and overriding legal principle is that cases are open to the public unless it can be established that a case should not be public based on the particular facts of that case. A conservatorship proceeding is a legal proceeding in which the state (i.e., the government through the court) is being requested to take away or limit some, or sometimes many or most, of the prospective conservatee’s important personal, constitutional, and fundamental legal decision making and other rights and freedoms.
I’m assuming that Britney Spears’ case has not been public because previously she either requested, or she at least agreed or did not oppose, that the case would not be open to the public. That certainly would not be surprising given privacy and public image issues or concerns. Nevertheless, those concerns could exist in every conservatorship case, although not necessarily to the extent that they might exist in a case that involves a very public figure. How much bearing should the extent that a prospective conservatee or an existing conservatee is a public figure have on whether or not the case is open to the public? I haven’t researched for those court decisions, but the issue might already have been briefed in Britney Spears’ case.
As the above headline indicates, if in fact Ms. Spears is now requesting that her case be open to the public, as she in fact might be requesting especially as various other headlines appear to have indicated that she is starting to fight and oppose the conservatorship or at least parts of it, a strong argument can be made that her case should be open to the public.
Some of these similar issues and principles were at play a few years back in one of my cases in which it was difficult to convince a court to seal previously filed pleadings and declarations in a case that involved significant privacy issues (a prior, years ago completed sexual harassment case in which the victim now was requesting that the court seal the records). There are three primary reasons why legal proceedings generally and in principle are open to the public absent strong evidence and legal authority to the contrary, and a court order:
(1) to demonstrate that justice is meted out fairly,
(2) to provide a means by which citizens scrutinize and check the use and possible abuse of judicial power, and
(3) to enhance the truthfinding function of the proceeding.
NBC Subsidiary (KNBC-TV), Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County (1999) 20 Cal. 4th 1178, 1219.
Thus, if Ms. Spears is in fact requesting that her conservatorship case now be open to the public, there is a strong legal principle that supports her request. Of course, that doesn’t mean that such a request will be granted, but that is what makes the law and court proceedings what they are.
More to follow on this interesting case.
Below you will also find two short videos, one discussing resolution and settlement of conservatorship disputes and cases, and the other providing a summary overview of my mediator qualifications and experience. Best to you, Dave Tate.
Remember, every case and situation is different. It is important to obtain and evaluate all of the evidence that is available, and to apply that evidence to the applicable standards and laws. You do need to consult with an attorney and other professionals about your particular situation. This post is not a solicitation for legal or other services inside of or outside of California, and, of course, this post only is a summary of information that changes from time to time, and does not apply to any particular situation or to your specific situation. So . . . you cannot rely on this post for your situation or as legal or other professional advice or representation.
Thank you for reading this post. I ask that you also pass it along to other people who would be interested as it is through collaboration that great things and success occur more quickly. And please also subscribe to this blog and my other blog (see below), and connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Best to you, David Tate, Esq. (and inactive California CPA) – practicing in California only
Litigation, Disputes & Mediator: Business, Trust/Probate, Real Property, Governance, Elder Abuse, Investigations, Other Areas
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