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 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 Ms Wyatt was entitled to bring the claim even though she may face “formidable difficulties”in doing so. 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
Richard Hogwood, Partner at Stewarts comments, “Leaving the door ajar to Ms Wyatt to make a financial claim against wealth built up by her ex-husband in the twenty 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. It remains to be seen whether the significant delay in the wife bringing matters to court will reduce the amount she ultimately receives.
Nevertheless it is a salutary reminder that financial claims can linger long beyond the point of a divorce if not dealt with properly. No doubt there will be many people nervously checking back over old paperwork to make sure they will not also be revisited by the ghost of marriage past.”
Emma Hatley, Partner at Stewarts comments, “Access to justice is a strong pillar of the family legal system and, at this preliminary stage, has proved to carry greater weight than the desire to bring about finality of litigation. However the merits of the wife’s claims are yet to be tested.”
Adrian Clossick, Senior Associate at Stewarts comments, “This case raises important questions about fairness in the family justice system. Family law has developed significantly over the years in light of social changes. The public will properly query whether the decision to allow Ms Wyatt to continue her financial claim against her ex-husband over 20 years after their divorce is fair.
Even if it were, the fact that her ex-husband is left having to fund that claim raises concerns that the decision of the Supreme Court gives a green light to speculative claims being brought following divorce. It of course remains to be seen what Ms Wyatt’s final entitlement will be, but one would hope that the short length of the marriage, the significant period of delay in bringing her claim and the fact that the husband’s wealth was built up following divorce will feature heavily in the ultimate decision of the court”.
Frances Bailey, Associate at Stewarts adds, “The case is a stark reminder to any one involved in marital breakdown (whether the individuals themselves or their professional advisers) of the importance of ensuring that all financial claims are properly dealt with, and documented in an Order of the Court, at the time of the divorce. It highlights the importance of prompt and full legal advice from specialist family law practitioners.”
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