7: Wyatt v Vince – Decades in divorce
Even with the election only a few months away and with horrific conflict in various parts of the world, the media seems to have an insatiable appetite for a good divorce story. Few have such bizarre facts as those in the ongoing dispute between Kathleen Wyatt and Dale Vince. This made its way to the Supreme Court in December 2014 and judgment was handed down on 11 March 2015. This judgment raises a number of interesting questions of law and procedure but most people will be interested in its practical effect. Can it really be the case that an ex spouse can make a financial claim nearly 2 decades after a divorce and nearly 27 years after the marriage broke down? The answer seems to be yes provided the facts are right. The decision will be especially galling for Dale as Kathleen is seeking a share of a fortune built up by him after the divorce.
The actual facts were described by Lord Wilson as being “highly unusual”. That is masterful understatement. The parties met when Dale was 19 and Kathleen 21. She already had one child and together they had another (Kathleen went on to have 2 more). After a shortish period of cohabitation they married but the marriage broke down in 1984 after about 2 years. In 1992 Kathleen brought divorce proceedings. Because the court file had been lost the Supreme Court proceeded on the hypothesis that no final financial orders were made within the divorce proceedings. Importantly, at the time of separation and for many years afterwards neither party had any real money. Kathleen and the children lived from hand to mouth “in circumstances of real privation bordering upon poverty”. Dale only provided limited financial support for the children largely because he could not really afford to pay more as he was living as a traveller. It was only 13 years later that he started to make his fortune in green energy. He is now the sole shareholder of Ecotricity Group Ltd (a company said to be worth some £57m) and the Sunday Times for 15 March put his personal worth at £100m.
In 2011 Kathleen started her financial claims (seeking it is said in the judgment £1.9m). Dale sought to have the claim struck out on the basis that it disclosed no reasonable grounds and was an abuse of process. That application progressed through the hands of a Deputy High Court judge and the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court.
It may surprise some people to learn that there is no limitation period which applies to financial claims arising on divorce. Remarriage inhibits claims but the mere passage of time does not. Unreasonable delay in bringing a claim is a factor that can be taken into account when determining the claim but is not an absolute bar. The relevant court rules require the court to manage the application in compliance with an “overriding objective” and the particular provisions relied upon by Dale appear to give the court strong powers to dispense with unmeritorious claims but it is not possible to apply for summary judgment in the way one can with normal civil claims. As Lord Wilson stressed there is a meticulous duty cast upon family courts to consider all the circumstances and the specific eight matters laid down in statute.
Kathleen’s claim appeared to be two-pronged. Firstly she argued that she had real financial needs. Lord Wilson was not totally convinced by this part of her argument. Secondly she relied on “contribution”. The relevant part of the legislation says that the court is required to have regard to “the contributions which each party has made….to the welfare of the family, including any contribution by looking after the home and caring for the family”. Such contributions are not limited to those made prior to the separation or even during the marriage. So, in a sense, Kathleen was given credit for the effort she made after the divorce in looking after the children.
What Kathleen will ultimately receive remains unknown. It is most unlikely that she will be awarded all she seeks. She may however receive a capital sum in the low hundred’s of thousands of pounds. The judge indicated that he thought that had he had to decide the point he would have concluded that the claim had a “real prospect of comparatively modest success”. He thought Kathleen’s contribution in looking after the children went to offset the delay in bringing the claim. “Contribution” and “delay” were two “magnetic factors” and the latter may in the final analysis eliminate what might otherwise be awarded to Kathleen.
Cases like this are often described as “ground breaking” but interestingly in his judgment Lord Wilson referred to a decision from 1980 where it had been said that a wife could successfully bring a claim against an inheritance received by a husband 9 years after separation.
There are lessons to be learnt from this sad tale not least the importance of seeking to obtain an order that finally resolves finances, and does not leave open the possibility of future claims, at the time of the divorce. The cases also stresses the importance of keeping copies of important court documents just in case the court file is lost or destroyed.
23 March 2015