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Wyatt v Vince [2015] UKSC 14

The Supreme Court’s judgment in the case of Wyatt v Vince [2015] UKSC 14 has stated that Kathleen Wyatt, whose marriage to Dale Vince ended in divorce in 1992, should be allowed to have her claim for financial provision heard by the Family Court in England and Wales.
Ms Wyatt first took legal action against her ex-husband in 2011. At that time she sought an award of £1.9million from Mr Vince who, following the parties’ divorce in 1992, had founded the wind-power firm Ecotricity in 1995. The business is said to be worth £57million, whilst Mr Vince has an estimated wealth of £107million.
Ms Wyatt and Mr Vince first met in 1981 and married later that year. They lived a New Age traveller lifestyle for the next few years, subsisting on state benefits during that time. Ms Wyatt’s daughter from a previous relationship was looked after by Mr Vince as if she were his daughter too. The parties’ then had a son together in 1983 and separated the following year, with their divorce being finalised in 1992. The Court papers in relation to that action have since been destroyed or misplaced, but it is assumed that Ms Wyatt did not seek any financial provision from Mr Vince at that time due to him having little or no money.
Following their separation Mr Vince continued travelling, leaving Ms Wyatt to bring up their children. Ms Wyatt later had two further children to a different father.
In making her application for financial provision Ms Wyatt argued that she should be awarded a “financial remedy” on the basis that she had borne the burden of bringing up the parties’ children and, as a result, had been unable to work, resulting in financial loss. Ms Wyatt also argued that, through no fault of her own, she had been unable to make an application to the Court before 2011. Mr Vince originally appealed against Ms Wyatt’s application on the basis that she had lodged the claim too late, indeed some 19 years following decree of divorce being granted.
However, the Supreme Court has now unanimously ruled that Ms Wyatt’s case should go before the Family Court and cannot be struck out without a full consideration of the issues. In delivering the Court’s judgment Lord Wilson noted that 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”, with his Lordship accepting that Ms Wyatt had raised the parties’ children through “16 years of real hardship”
However, although Lord Wilson stated that Ms Wyatt’s claim was “legally recognisable” and not an “abuse of process”, his Lordship admitted that “It is obvious, even at this stage, that an award approaching [£1.9million] is out of the question,” and that Ms Wyatt faces “formidable difficulties” in seeking to establish that any financial order should be made in her favour because of the long delay and the fact that the relationship lasted less than three years. Lord Wilson warned that Ms Wyatt’s claim “may even be dismissed”, but stated that there is “a real prospect that she will secure a comparatively modest award.”
The Supreme Court’s judgment makes clear that one factor Ms Wyatt could rely on to justify a financial order is that of her much greater contribution to the upbringing of the parties’ children over many years. However, reaffirming the decision of the Court of Appeal in a recent case that we wrote about on 27 February 2015, Lord Wilson declared that “It is a dangerous fallacy… that the current law always requires rich men to meet the reasonable needs of their ex-wives”, highlighting another difficulty that Ms Wyatt may face should her case be brought before the Family Court.
The decision of the Supreme Court is striking in that it underlines the fact that, unlike claims for say personal injury or breach of contract, there is no time limit for ex-spouses to apply to a Court in England and Wales for a financial settlement following a divorce, even if their claim is considered to be weak. Indeed, Lord Wilson states in his judgment that “Consistently with the potentially life-long obligations which attend a marriage, there is no time-limit for seeking orders for financial provision or property adjustment for the benefit of a spouse following divorce”, and that “The court will look critically at explanations for it; and, even irrespective of its effect upon the respondent, will be likely, by reason of it and subject to the potency of other factors, to reduce or even to eliminate its provision for the applicant.”
The position in Scotland is very different. Once divorce has been granted there is no scope for a claim for financial provision to be made except in very limited circumstances where the divorce has been granted overseas. Any claim for financial provision must be made prior to the decree of divorce being granted. If Mrs Wyatt were to have lived in Scotland and divorced in Scotland in 1992, she would not have been able to make any claim on Mr Vince’s riches from his energy company acquired after the date of the divorce. This is because in Scotland matrimonial property consists of property acquired during the marriage and held at the date of separation so any earnings, windfalls or acquisitions of property after the date of separation are not taken into account in the division of assets. In addition the Scottish courts favour a clean break approach and ongoing financial support is uncommon. This case highlights the stark differences between Scots and English law.