Newsom signs #FreeBritney bill to help reform conservatorship laws

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Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday signed into law the so-called #FreeBritney bill, legislation designed to reform the state’s legal guardianship laws that critics say have led to the exploitation of many Californians, including pop star Britney Spears.

The bill by Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Campbell) holds professional conservators to a higher standard by requiring them to disclose their fees online, prohibits financial conflicts of interest involving the conservator and increases enforcement actions against those who are not acting in their clients’ best interest.

“California’s conservatorship system is failing people from every walk of life, whether they are a global superstar whose struggles unfortunately play out in public or a family unsure of how to take care of an elderly parent,” Low said in a statement after the signing. “This bill saw unanimous, bipartisan support throughout the process because it’s painfully clear that we can and should do better."

At a news conference earlier in the week, Low said he learned that problems in California's conservatorship laws were more widespread than he had known when he started working on the issue. "It’s important that we close these loopholes and create accountability and transparency," he said.

Grassroots activism over the case of Spears, who was under a legal conservatorship controlled by her father for the past 13 years — and is still fighting to end her conservatorship altogether has drawn national media attention to the issue.

The legal process, which few Americans knew about before Spears, allows the court to appoint a guardian to manage the affairs of a person deemed incapable of doing so due to such conditions as a cognitive disability, severe mental illness or substance abuse disorder. But people have been abused and financially taken advantage of under these arrangements, and getting out of a conservatorship is difficult — even for someone with Spears’ resources.

“The #FreeBritney movement has given us a moment in time that is allowing us to shine a light on a system that we have been concerned about for many, many years,” said Judy Mark, president of Disability Voices United, a Los Angeles-based group that fights for people with disabilities, and an advocate of conservatorship reform.

On Wednesday, Spears won a major victory when a judge removed her father as her conservator, a huge step forward to ending her conservatorship altogether. Her next court date is Nov. 12.

That ruling came a day after a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on “toxic conservatorships” that was inspired by her case.

Most of the law's provisions don’t go into effect until 2023 or 2024. Additional state legislation to reform the system may also be introduced next year.

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