The ground-breaking decision by the Supreme Court given by Lady Hale, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Hughes and Lord Hodge on 11 March 2015, found that in the case of Vince v Wyatt, the wife was entitled to pursue her claim for financial support from her ex-husband more than two decades after their divorce.
Not only that – the husband was also expected to provide her with the funds to finance the legal proceedings. The case has now been returned to the High Court to consider the quantum of her claims.
Lord Wilson, reading the unanimous judgment, said that Mrs Wyatt was entitled to bring the claim even though she may face “formidable difficulties” in so doing. Nevertheless her “greater contribution to the upbringing of the couple’s children over many years…may justify a financial order for a comparatively modest sum.”
The Court of Appeal, considering this an extreme set of circumstances, had previously supported the husband’s contention that his wife’s claims should be struck out. They indicated that, where “hopeless claims” are made, judges should adopt a robust case management stance to preserve the resources of the court, acknowledging that there is already “unremitting pressure” on the system and “unacceptably long” waiting times for hearings. The Supreme Court held that this approach was wrong as Ms Wyatt’s application was in fact “legally recognisable.” Whether or not a claim in the Family Courts had a real prospect of success or not was not a basis for allowing it to be struck out.
Having met as undergraduates, Mr Vince and Ms Wyatt went on to marry in December 1981. By that time they had a relatively young baby together and the wife had a two year old daughter from an earlier relationship. By the mid-1980s, though, the relationship had foundered and the couple separated. Several years later in October 1992 they obtained a divorce. Both parties went on to find new partners (the husband remarrying) and each had more children in these relationships.
Neither the husband nor the wife had assets or income at the time of marriage, separation or divorce and their lifestyle was described by the court as ‘the new age or traveller creed’. Only several years later, around 1995, did the husband turn his hand to business. What began as a project – to construct a wind turbine out of recycled material to provide power for the caravan in which he lived – ballooned into the multi-million pound renewable energy company, Ecotricity.
The wife claimed that, despite her best efforts (which had included seeking the advice of separate solicitors in 1984, 1992, 1996 and 2002), she had been unable to advance the financial claims against her husband until 2010 when she went to a fifth firm of lawyers. Meanwhile, as a consequence of the significant period of time that had passed, such paperwork that existed at the time of the separation and divorce had been destroyed. The only surviving document was the decree absolute. Therefore there was no clear way of knowing whether the parties had dealt with their financial claims at the time of divorce and, if so, how.
The implications of the judgment
The Supreme Court’s judgment in Vince v Wyatt raises important legal issues in divorce cases where traditionally the principal focus has been on “needs”, particularly those needs generated by the marriage.
The former wife, Ms Wyatt, argued that her responsibilities flowing from the marriage, primarily the care of her children, coupled with the absence of financial support from her husband, required her to turn down higher education opportunities. As a result she has missed the opportunity of higher earnings and her needs today, she said, became greater than they would otherwise have been.
The Supreme Court was relatively lukewarm about this claim. The argument which it considered more powerful was founded upon the contributions which Ms Wyatt had made, and which Mr Vince had apparently largely failed to make, to maintain the home and family. These contributions could have happened at any time – when the marriage was working, when the couple had separated and even after they had divorced. Has this opened doors for divorced couples to rake over the historical coals in order to identify past contributions and to seek recompense for them today? Quite possibly so. This is a rather unsavoury prospect but one that may still yield little for Ms Wyatt because of her “inordinate” delay in making her claim.
Leaving the door ajar to Ms Wyatt to make a financial claim against wealth built up by her ex-husband in the 20-plus years since they divorced will surely raise fundamental questions about fairness in the family justice system. The bitter pill delivered by the judgment will no doubt be even harder to swallow for Mr Vince as he has to provide her with the funds to pursue it. This is a salutary reminder that financial claims can linger long beyond the point of a divorce if not dealt with properly.
Richard Hogwood is a partner at Stewarts Law
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