The singer said she had not known she needed to petition the court to be released from her conservatorship, placing a focus on the court-appointed counsel who has represented her for 13 years.
Before Britney Spears broke her public silence on Wednesday regarding the long-running legal arrangement that has controlled her life, calling it abusive in an urgent and emotional speech, the man appointed to represent her in court for the last 13 years said he had no role in what she was about to say.
"These are entirely her words," said Samuel Ingham III, a lawyer for the singer since 2008, when she was deemed incapable by a judge of hiring her own counsel.
At the time, Spears had been hospitalised for an involuntary psychiatric evaluation amid concerns about her mental health and substance abuse, and her father, James P. Spears, was petitioning in California for a conservatorship over her person and finances that continues to this day.
So when Spears said this week that, under the arrangement, she had been forced to perform, take debilitating medication and remain on birth control, among other claims, she drew attention to the question of whether Ingham had done enough to educate and support his client, as the law requires.
"I didn't know I could petition the conservatorship to be ended," Spears, 39, told the judge during a live feed of the hearing. "I'm sorry for my ignorance, but I honestly didn't know that." She added, "My attorney says I can't — it's not good, I can't let the public know anything they did to me."
"He told me I should keep it to myself, really," the singer said.
Ingham did not respond to requests to comment Thursday on how his client's portrayal of him in court corresponded with his own view of his counsel, and it is unknown what discussions the two have had about whether or how Spears could ask to end the conservatorship. But the dramatic courtroom moment illustrated their frayed relationship, and the inherent conflicts that exist in a conservatorship system in which Spears has been forced to pay a lawyer she did not choose for herself.
"It's certainly troubling that this has gone on for so long if she has wanted to end it," said Rebekah Diller, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law and an expert on guardianships. "It's hard to know exactly what's gone on behind closed doors, but in general one would hope she has been told that throughout the years, because it's a critical right she was entitled to."
Last year, Ingham began seeking substantial changes in the conservatorship, including some steps toward Spears' requested removal of her father as conservator. And in her remarks, Spears noted that she and Ingham had developed a closer relationship of late, speaking about three times per week. Still, Spears said Wednesday, she wished to hire her own lawyer.
After Spears' remarks, Ingham said he would step aside if asked, but the current judge in the case, Brenda Penny, did not lay out in detail what the next steps would be to address Spears' concerns about the conservatorship or her legal representation.
Sarah Wentz, a trusts and estate lawyer for Fox Rothschild, said that given what Spears presented in court, she "can't even fathom" why Ingham had not been prompted to file to terminate the conservatorship. "If he knew what she was saying, he should have been prepared," she said. "If he did what a lawyer is supposed to do, he would have met and found out she wants to terminate."
A go-to veteran of the California probate system, Ingham has been selected to work on other complex conservatorship cases, including those of radio personality Casey Kasem and media mogul Sumner Redstone, both of whom were old and ailing. In court records, Ingham calls himself a specialist in probate, estate planning and trust law, areas in which he has practised for more than 45 years, and he highlights his inclusion on the Super Lawyers of Southern California industry leaders' list.
For his work with Spears, Ingham is paid US$475 ($670) an hour — a special rate allowed by the court in cases that feature "unusual problems requiring extraordinary expertise." In 2019, the last year in which full accounting was available, Ingham made about US$373,000 ($528,000) for his work with Spears, bringing his total since 2008 to near US$3 million ($4.2 million). Spears is not known to have questioned Ingham's fees.
Court records from over the years provide a sense of Ingham's interactions with those in charge of the conservatorship.
At one closed-door hearing in 2014, according to confidential records obtained by The New York Times, Ingham raised what he said were six points Spears had asked him to bring up, including her concerns about her father's drinking, the custody of her children and terminating the conservatorship of her person altogether.
According to the court records, Ingham noted that Spears had been "hostile, aggressive, and extremely threatening toward the conservatorship," especially in the presence of her boyfriend at the time, David Lucado. Ingham repeatedly mentioned Spears' use of expletives while in Lucado's presence, including once around her children.
"As an officer of the court, that was very troublesome to me," Ingham said, noting that he had informed lawyers for James Spears, who oversaw the singer's visitation with her two sons, "so he can take whatever steps are necessary to protect the children."
When Ingham mentioned that Britney Spears believed the conservatorship prevented her from retiring, getting married and having children, the judge at the time, Reva Goetz said, "I don't recall that we made any orders about the right to marry, but you may not want to tell her that."
Ingham, according to the transcript, replied, "Somehow that did not come up in the conversation," before moving on.
Ingham indicated at that hearing that his contact with Spears was generally brief. A recent 90-minute meeting they'd had was "at least three times longer than any session I've ever had with my client," he said.
Recently, Ingham brought on additional lawyers to help with Spears' case. He was granted permission to hire litigation specialists; for seven months of work, their fees totalled US$237,761.23 ($336,658.30), with Ingham noting in court records that he had negotiated a 5 per cent discount for her.
Under the conservatorship, Spears pays all the legal bills, including those of counsel for the conservators whose control she has criticized as harmful and abusive.
In defending his own billings in March 2021, Ingham said in court papers that he had "conferred in person and by telephone on a regular basis" with Spears recently, advising her on a variety of issues including her career, custody concerns, medical treatment and even "the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on her travel and other activities."
He noted that while his recent billing totalled US$154,850, he "voluntarily reduced my fees to US$153,782.50."
At the 2014 hearing, Ingham said he had encouraged Spears to appear in court to increase "the likelihood of her getting more specific information" regarding her concerns with the conservatorship, but that "she has elected not to do so."
In her absence, according to the transcript, he did not push aggressively for answers.
Regarding Spears accusations that her father was acting inappropriately for a conservator, Ingham and the judge agreed to suggest a preliminary hearing to determine if there was a reason to proceed with a full investigation of the singer's father, according to court records from 2014.
"That would give me something specific to offer her," Ingham said, "that does not have me going out and subpoenaing her butler."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Joe Coscarelli, Liz Day and Samantha Stark
Photographs by: Allison Zaucha
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