The Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Wyatt v Vince  UKSC14 is of vital importance to divorcing, and divorced, couples underlining the need always to obtain final settlement orders with respect to the financial claims which arise from a marriage. Today, with effectively no legal aid available to assist with the legal costs of dealing with these matters it is all too easy for a financial settlement to be dealt with informally, or not at all, following a couple’s separation. This case underlines the very considerable risks which can flow from this.
The Facts of the Case
Kathleen Wyatt (the Wife) and Dale Vince (the Husband) met and married in 1981. At the time, neither had any assets and they lived largely on state benefits. The Wife had a daughter before the marriage, who became a child of the family, and the couple later had a child together called Dane in 1983. The Husband stated that he and the Wife separated in 1984, after only just over 2 years together. The Wife argued that the relationship did not finally end until some time later. The Wife divorced the husband in 1992. For many years after the end of their relationship both parties continued to live a frugal life with minimal income and very few assets. However, in the mid 1990’s the Husband began a wind turbine company, which swiftly became and has remained extremely profitable with a value of many millions.
In 2011, over 18 years after their divorce and 27 years after they separated, the Wife brought a claim against the Husband for divorce financial settlement, which she quantified at £1.9 million. The Wife brought this claim even though all of the Husband’s wealth was accrued long after the separation and divorce.
When the case came before the Court of Appeal that court used a new court rule which came into force in 2011 (Rule 4.4 of the Family Proceedings Rules 2010) to strike out the wife’s claim stating that there were no reasonable grounds for bringing it.
The Wife then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court has reversed the decision made in the court of appeal and has allowed the Wife to pursue her financial claims against the Husband.
The court held that Rule 4.4 of the FPR should not have been used to strike out the Wife’s claim. It decided that it was not correct to say that there were no reasonable grounds for bringing the case without hearing evidence and that it was not a frivolous, scurrilous or obviously ill founded application, which should be stopped as an abuse of the court process. When determining a divorce financial settlement application the court is under a duty to take account of all the factors which are set out in law (s. 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973) and this cannot be done if an application is struck out and terminated summarily without the necessary evidence being heard and considered by the court.
The Wife will therefore now be able to pursue her claim against the Husband.
The Supreme Court made clear its view that the Wife would face formidable difficulties in her claim due to: the short length of the marriage; the period of time since it broke down; the very low standard of living of the parties during the marriage; the fact that the husband did not accrue his wealth until long after the marriage breakdown; the fact that the wife had made no contribution to the creation of the wealth and her long delay in bringing her claim before the court. However, despite these factors the court made clear its opinion that the Wife’s claim did have a real prospect of comparatively modest success.
The court also confirmed that the Wife should be entitled to an allowance, paid by the Husband, to pay her legal costs incurred in making the application as she could not reasonably secure legal advice and representation by any other means and it would be unreasonable to expect her lawyers to work for her without payment until her application had been decided.
Following the decision in this case, it is now abundantly clear that it is extremely risky not to obtain orders in divorce proceedings which finalise the financial settlement. Where couples do not do so they face the prospect of claims arising in the future, perhaps many years after the divorce, which will not be stopped by the court and which may well succeed. (Even where a claim ultimately fails the person against whom it is made faces the stress and hassle of dealing with the proceedings together with considerable legal cost.)
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