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The judgment in Wyatt v Vince [2015] UKSC 14 was handed down today with the surprise result of success for the wife. This is now raising lots of questions as to whether the floodgates will open for lots of parties who separated a number of years ago but did not seek a financial severance at that time. However it is important to remember : ‘The circumstances of the case are highly unusual’ (per Lord Wilson, at para 2).

Kathleen Wyatt, 55, first took legal action against Dale Vince, 53, founder of wind-power firm Ecotricity, in 2011.

Mr Vince had previously appealed against his ex-wife on the basis she had lodged the claim too late.

But five Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled Ms Wyatt’s case should go before the family court.

Delivering the ruling, Lord Wilson said the court must have regard “to the contribution of each party to the welfare of the family, including by looking after the home or caring for the family”.

‘Open season’ fear
Mr Vince and Ms Wyatt met as students in their early 20s and married in 1981.

The pair had a son, Dane, and lived a New Age traveller lifestyle before their divorce, the court heard.

Mr Dale set up his company, Ecotricity, in 1995 after the pair had split. He is now worth an estimated £107m and has an OBE.

Lord Wilson said Ms Wyatt, who lived in Lowestoft, Suffolk, Sunderland and the Forest of Dean, had raised her son through “16 years of real hardship”.

Her claim was “legally recognisable” and not an “abuse of process”, he said, although the £1.9m payout she had hoped to secure was too high an amount.

“It is obvious, even at this stage, that an award approaching that size is out of the question,” he said.

“Her claim may even be dismissed.

“But there is, in our opinion, a real prospect that she will secure a comparatively modest award, perhaps of a size which would enable her to purchase a somewhat more comfortable, mortgage-free home.”

In a statement, Mr Vince branded the court’s decision “mad”.

“I feel that we all have a right to move on, and not be looking over our shoulders,” he said.

“This could signal open season for people who had brief relationships a quarter of a century ago.”

Mr Vince said the time gap was “extremely prejudicial” and the fact there was “no paperwork in existence” had enabled the claim.

It was “hard to defend yourself” under such circumstances, he said.

Ms Wyatt, who now lives in Monmouth, lodged her first claim for “financial remedy” in 2011.

The wife’s appeal raised the following questions:

what is the extent of the jurisdiction to strike out a spouse’s application for a financial order under the Family Procedure Rules 2010, 4.4 ?

in the light of the factors relevant to the determination of the wife’s application did the Court of Appeal err in striking it out?

if the answer is yes, what case management directions would be proportionate to the unusual circumstances of the wife’s application?

irrespective of the answer to whether the Court of Appeal erred or not, did it err in setting aside the costs allowance order and/or in making the repayment order?

The wife faced (and continues to face) the following obstacles:

the marital cohabitation subsisted for scarcely more than two years
it broke down 31 years ago
the standard of living enjoyed by the parties prior to the breakdown could not have been lower
the husband did not begin to create his current wealth until 13 years after the breakdown; and
the wife made no contribution, direct or indirect, to its creation

Key aspects of the Supreme Court’s decision are:

the meticulous duty cast upon family courts by section 25(2) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 is inconsistent with any summary power to determine either that an ex-wife has no real prospect of successfully prosecuting her claim or that an ex-husband has no real prospect of successfully defending it
the wife was described as having a ‘real prospect of comparatively modest success’
the costs allowance order (legal services order) was restored.

So, an interesting read.

However how does this impact upon our day to day practice. This case shows the extreme set of circumstances that can happen if you fail to endorse your financial Arrangement into a clean break order. It is also shows time is not necessarily of the essence in making an application.