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Conservatorships & their impact on mental health

Britney Spears’s conservatorship has been big news – but what about others living with similar restrictions who don’t have the same level of media interest?

To mark Human Rights Day our Head of Public Involvement Thomas examines the implications of the case on this side of the pond.

By Mike Maguire, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107722174

Thomas Kabir

‘Conservatorship’ – now that’s a word I didn’t know the meaning of.

Earlier this year, I watched the BBC documentary entitled ‘The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash, and a Conservatorship’. Quite suddenly I started seeing posts on social media with the now famous hashtag ‘#FreeBritney’.

Britney Spears was under a special kind of court order in the United States called ‘conservatorship’. Amongst other things, this places her financial affairs under the control of someone called a Conservator. In Spears’s case it was (rather infamously) her father.  

“Before Spears’s case, not many people knew that huge areas of people’s personal lives could be the subject of a court order.”

In November 2021 the pop star’s campaign to end the conservatorship was successful. It wasn’t easy, and it was widely reported in the press how hard it is to overturn these court orders.

This is a landmark case in many ways. For one, Britney Spears and her supporters have done a great service in highlighting the issues facing people with mental health issues across the world.

Before Spears’s case, not many people knew that huge areas of people’s personal lives could be the subject of a court order. And it’s not just money; someone could be told that they can’t marry, or have sex, for example.

Now I would say that people are much more aware of the issues.

The Court of Protection

In England the legal equivalent of conservatorship is an order from a special court called the Court of Protection. When I was a mental health advocate I had clients under these court orders.  

Over the last few years it really has been my privilege to work on a study called Mental Health and Justice (www.mhj.org.uk). One part of this is to look at supporting people who may lack something called ‘mental capacity’.

This is an issue that the Court of Protection has to deal with fairly frequently. Loosely speaking mental capacity is the ‘ability to process the information you need to be able to make a decision’.

Some of the most difficult cases in England’s legal system come to the Court of Protection. Judges very often have to take a view as to whether someone has mental capacity to make a specific decision in the course of a case. These cases can have huge impacts on people’s lives.

“One of the main goals of this [project] is to develop better ways of supporting people who have impaired decision-making capacity to lead much more independent lives.”

Supporting people to live more independently

A barrister called Alex Ruck Keene has been leading on a large chunk of work within the Mental Health and Justice study looking at the cases that have been before the Court of Protection.

One of the main goals of this is to develop better ways of supporting people who have impaired decision-making capacity to lead much more independent lives.

The other side of this is to support professionals such as judges to handle cases where someone’s mental capacity may be in doubt.

If you would like to know more about the Court of Protection, and other issues relating to mental capacity, I would highly recommend Keene’s series of online discussions on the topic.

Factors that can help people under court orders due to mental capacity issues

So what were the factors that helped Britney Spears be released from the conservatorship? What would help others in such situations?

Well of course there’s so much that we don’t know about the Spears case. In all such cases people’s confidentiality needs to be respected. This means that the public do not generally know everything that is going on.  

“[Legal aid] cuts have been nothing less than disastrous, and leave vulnerable people in terrible situations.”

And I need to say that I am not legally qualified in any way. But it does occur to me that:

1. Having supporters is essential. People who are facing Court of Protection proceedings need support – both legal support, and practical and emotional support.

2. You need good legal representation. In the UK this has become increasingly difficult due to drastic cuts in legal aid. People usually get legal aid for Court of Protection Cases, but it’s increasingly hard to get help for other matters. These cuts have been nothing less than disastrous, and leave vulnerable people in terrible situations. I would call upon the government to massively increase the legal aid budget.

3. We need more early interventions. More support, such as advocacy services, needs to be in place for people so that they can manage their lives more independently before cases get to the point that the legal system needs to get involved.  

4. People need to have the tools to help themselves. Things such as advance directives support people to say what they themselves would like to happen if they do lack capacity. This has been the subject of two different parts of the Mental Health and Justice study.

You can find out more about the work on advance directives that has been carried out in the study here. You can watch a short video about a newly developed form of advance directive called a ‘self-binding measure’ here.

We can all do our part

So, on this Human Rights Day, let’s also think about the people who are still under the equivalent of conservatorship.

There are no easy answers, but perhaps we can all be supporters to people facing these issues. All of us can do our part.

The Mental Health and Justice project is a five-year project, and due to come to an end in 2022. Sign up to the McPin newsletter to receive updates on this and other work.

To find out more about the work the Mental Health and Justice team is doing, take a look at our project page or the MHJ website


Thomas Kabir is Head of Public Involvement at McPin.