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Delay is no bar to a money claim after divorce

The Supreme Court has just released its decision in the case of Wyatt v Vince. We thought we’d get in early with a blog, as we suspect that there may be headlines in tomorrow’s papers about ‘the door being left open for greedy wives to claim millions many years after divorce’, when in fact that’s not quite the full story.

Let’s start with reminder about the background to the case: Dale Vince and Kathleen Wyatt married in 1981. At the time Ms Wyatt had a daughter from a previous relationship who they treated as a child of their family, and they went on to have a son together. During their relationship they had a “hippy” lifestyle and had no assets of significance. They separated in 1984, and both followed a new age traveller lifestyle for many years – Mr Vince lived in an old ambulance, and eventually started making his own electricity using a home-made turbine, which ultimately led to his fortune.

Some years after they separated, there were divorce proceedings in the County Court (as the family court was back then). They had no assets and were both receiving state benefits at the time. The only surviving document from those proceedings was the decree absolute of divorce, made on 26th October 1992. Mr Vince claimed that at that time Ms Wyatt made a court application for ancillary relief (i.e. a financial settlement on divorce) which was dismissed, but there was no evidence of this as the court file seems to have been lost. Ms Wyatt raised her children without any financial support from Mr Vince.

In 1995, ten years after the couple had separated, Mr Vince founded Ecotricity, the world’s first green energy company which has since grown into a very successful business, worth around £57m.

Ms Wyatt started a new relationship in 1995 and had two further children by her new partner. The parties’ son went to live with Mr Vince in 2001. Mr Vince remarried in 2006 and had a child with his new wife.

In the absence of evidence that Mr Vince and Ms Wyatt’s financial claims against each other on divorce were dismissed, they still exist and so Ms Wyatt was still able technically to make a claim for some money from Mr Vince. She made her claim in May 2011 when she applied to court for a financial remedies order as well as a costs allowance of £125,000 to finance her claim. The application went to the High Court where Mr Vince cross-applied to strike out Ms Wyatt’s claim as an abuse of process because it was so long since the divorce. The High Court declined to do so, and ordered that Mr Vince furnish Ms Wyatt with a fighting fund to bring the claim against him.

Subsequently Mr Vince appealed successfully to the Court of Appeal who ordered that Ms Wyatt’s claim for a housing fund and capitalized lifetime maintenance should be struck out. It said the jurisdiction of the family court to strike out cases which were hopeless (as Ms Wyatt’s was considered to be as it was brought too late and all his wealth had been generated well after they were divorced) should operate in the same way as the jurisdiction in the civil courts. This is a technical point, but is the crux of this case.

In a decision which is no doubt correct on a strict legal point, but will seem unfair to many, the Supreme Court has allowed Ms Wyatt’s appeal against her claim being struck out.  The judgment and a press summary are here.

The Supreme Court has decided that Ms Wyatt is able to make a financial claim against her former husband because there is no evidence that, at the time of the divorce, any financial orders were sought or made. She has not remarried so her claims for maintenance remain ‘live’. This alone acts as a warning to anyone who does not sort out the financial aspects of their separation at the time that they can come back to bite many years later.

Secondly, when looking at whether Ms Wyatt’s case could or should be struck out, the Supreme Court has explained that whilst the family court can strike out a “statement of case” – a claim form or supporting documents – it cannot make a summary judgment dismissing someone’s claims altogether if there is a legal basis for them, i.e. in this case that no financial order was made at the time of divorce and she had not remarried. That power does not exist in the family court. When faced with a claim for financial provision following divorce or dissolution the court has a statutory duty under section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 to determine that application having regard to all the circumstances, including the factors set out in section 25. If the court were able summarily to dismiss a claim through the summary judgment procedure they would be failing in their statutory duty.

So, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeal was wrong to have given its quick dismissal of Ms Wyatt’s claims. Her claim was not an abuse of process as it was legally recognisable, so should have been able to proceed to trial. The effect of the judgment is that her case will now proceed to be heard in the Family Division of the High Court. What it doesn’t mean is that she will necessarily receive a large sum of money, or indeed any sum at all.

The Supreme Court judges pointed out that Ms Wyatt faces formidable difficulties in seeking to establish that a financial order should be made in her favour, including the short duration of the marriage and the long delay since separation. The judges observed that her needs now are not clearly referable to her marriage to Mr Vince, although she has made a greater contribution to the care of the children which might “justify a financial order for a comparatively modest sum”. It seems clear from the judgment that the judges feel she should be given a chance to put her case, but that any award may not be a significant sum (although, that said, it may still be significant to Ms Wyatt).

Aside from some rather technical procedural points, this case is a clarion call for finalising the financial arrangements arising from a separation at the time. Who wants to be litigating over finances thirty years after separating from a spouse?

If you have would like to talk about claims many years after divorce, do give us a call on 01223 443333 to make an appointment.

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