Last week Britney Spears testified in court about the extent of the abuse she experienced over the last 13 years while under conservatorship.
Forced labour, medication she did not want, time in a residential centre against her will, refusal to remove her IUD (birth control) — all these decisions were made by her father as her legally appointed conservator. She is still being prevented from getting married.
We cannot view this abuse in isolation from the system in which it occurs. Conservatorship itself is abusive. It is a form of substituted decision making, where one's decision-making power is given to a different person.
Similar systems exist around the world. Britney has been wronged by a system that removes her legal capacity — or her right to make her own decisions. Similar systems have harmed disabled people across the world, including in Ireland.
The 2007 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities makes clear that the right of disabled people to make their own decisions is absolute. Countries are supposed to replace conservatorship-type systems with measures that allow for people to be supported to make their own decisions.
Ireland has refused to commit to making this change, instead continuing with measures that are systemically abusive.
In Ireland, the main law which deprives people of their legal capacity is the Lunacy Regulation (Ireland) Act, 1871. While people can also lose their right to make decisions under the Mental health act 2001, or other powers of the High Court, this one is most similar to the law Britney is under. It makes someone a ward of court — and places them under guardianship. Their decision-making power is given to another person. They are no longer allowed to make decisions on any area of their lives.
The High Court does not publish written judgments in capacity cases, which significantly reduces the transparency around how this law is impacting people. We don’t know everything that is happening under this law, but there is enough on record — thanks to some great journalists — to show just how similar the systems are. Many of the abusive practices Britney has described have been seen in Irish cases.
Just last month, the High Court authorised a caesarean on a woman with a psychosocial disability who was in prison. Courts have previously prevented a caesarean from being performed on a non-disabled woman without her consent.
Britney was forced into a residential setting against her will. This is particularly common in Ireland — our history of institutionalisation has not gone away. Both young and old people have been forced into nursing homes against their wishes. This is problematic at all times but was particularly distressing in the context of the Covid pandemic.
Nursing homes were hit hard. People in nursing homes not only died at a terrifying rate, but also faced untold restrictions, being cut off from family, support and the outside world in ways most of us can’t imagine.
This was devastating for everyone who experienced it, but is particularly cruel for those forced to be there. After the first wave of Covid, the then president of the High Court, Peter Kelly, acknowledged that twice the number of people had died under wardship in the first five months of 2020 than in the same period in 2019.
There has been a lot of speculation by the #FreeBritney movement that Britney isn’t allowed to buy new clothes, or just chooses not to rather than having to suffer the indignity of having to ask permission. A friend of mine who experienced wardship was once told that she couldn’t buy new runners because they were €90.
While the Irish judiciary is full of brilliant legal minds, it’s not clear that this extends to determining the fashion choices of others. Preventing an adult from choosing their own clothes undermines their dignity.
Many parents will have strong (if not always negative) opinions on the people their children choose to spend their lives with. This is partly why we don’t give parents a legal veto on our choice of partner. The Irish courts prevented a man under wardship from marrying his long-term girlfriend, after a judge ordered a halt to their wedding two days before it was due to take place in June 2019.
The State quietly repealed this part of the law after the man challenged the decision. Britney Spears and this man are virtually unique as they have been able to challenge decisions made about them. Most people under wardship are not multimillionaire celebrities. While the court has stressed that the voices of wards of court should be heard, in practice they rarely are.
Applications are made based on written submissions without the involvement of the person concerned. They mostly don’t get lawyers and remain almost entirely unheard from throughout the process.
The Lunacy Act is due to be replaced by the 2015 Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act. However, six years later the Act has not been enforced, and the necessary public bodies remain unfunded. The 2015 Act has major flaws, and is not compliant with international human rights standards — but moves us towards respecting a person's will and preference. It still retains a mechanism that allows for substituted decision making, something which was a disappointment to activists.
Few people will defend what Britney has gone through — a loving mother being prevented from having a child; an adult woman left under the complete authority of others; a multimillionaire unable to buy new clothes.
Britney is one of the most powerful people in the world, but because of her disability she is powerless to make the most basic decisions about her own life.
The world is a very different place than it was in 2007, so while we don our #FreeBritney masks, remember that there are many people like her right here in Ireland.