Last year, the Supreme Court held in Vince v Wyatt that Ms Wyatt’s application for financial remedies should be heard in the High Court. For the blog on that judgment, please click
Ms Wyatt sought £1.9 million in her application. It can be implied from his failed application to strike out her application that Mr Vince’s initial position was that she should receive nothing. Lord Wilson was clear in the Supreme Court judgement that the sum Ms Wyatt sought was “out of the question” (paragraph 33) given the difficulties that she faced (as set out in paragraph 30). The public have therefore waited with baited breath to find out what Ms Wyatt would be awarded or the sum the parties would agree that she is to receive.
The parties have now settled the proceedings, their agreement being reached through negotiations via solicitors’ correspondence. This was recorded in a Consent Order approved by the High Court, Family Division on 20 May 2016. However, other issues arose during this time, two of which were resolved by the Cobb J at that hearing.
The road to settlement
On 28 October 2015, there was a Financial Dispute Resolution hearing (FDR) before Moor J. This type of hearing is for the parties to try and settle the proceedings without going to trial or to narrow the issues between them to be dealt with at trial. A judge hearing the FDR will give an indication to the parties as to what the outcome would be if that judge were adjudicating the Final Hearing. No settlement was reached by the parties at FDR. However, an agreement was reached in solicitor’s correspondence, with the terms of the agreement being finally agreed by 24 March 2016.
The terms are that:
1) Mr Vince is to pay Ms Wyatt a lump sum of £300,000 in full and final satisfaction of all financial relief.
2) Ms Wyatt will retain the £200,000 Mr Vince has paid on account towards her legal costs for the appeal to the Supreme Court. This is in addition to the £125,000 she received by virtue of the costs allowance order restored by the Supreme Court.
On approving the Consent Order, Cobb J commented that the terms were “reasonable” and that Ms Wyatt was “entitled to receive a modest capital award”. He felt that the sum agreed “fairly represents … a realistic and balanced appraisal of the unusual circumstances of this case”. From her award, Ms Wyatt will have to settle her outstanding bill of costs to her solicitors. It is not known what the total of that bill is or will be.
The bump in the road to settlement
A draft Consent Order was prepared and sent to Mr Vince’s solicitors on 7 April 2016 for him to sign. It was after this that Mr Vince sought to add into the agreement mutual confidentiality undertakings which would have the effect of restricting both parties from publishing anything about the settlement. Ms Wyatt did not agree. Mr Vince refused to sign the Consent Order unless the undertakings were included and threatened to obtain injunctions against Ms Wyatt prohibiting her from talking or publishing any information about the settlement. Ms Wyatt was therefore left with no option but to issue a Dean summons on 15 April 2016 (also known as a ‘notice to show cause application’) which was listed to be heard on 20 May 2016. This summons means that the summoned party has to satisfy the Court that it should not make an order in the same terms as the terms agreed in the draft Consent Order.
On 12 May 2016, eight days before the hearing and a month after he sought the undertakings, Mr Vince’s solicitors confirmed that he would sign the Consent Order without the undertakings. The parties agreed on 13 May 2016 that a hearing of the application was therefore no longer needed. Mr Vince’s conduct in refusing to sign had caused Ms Wyatt to incur further costs; Cobb J therefore ordered costs against Mr Vince in relation to Ms Wyatt’s costs for the Dean Summons up until 13 May 2016, assessed as £1000.
The hearing on 20 May 2016 before Cobb J mostly dealt with the issue of publicity of the terms of the settlement. This issue engaged articles 6, 8 and 10 of the ECHR respectively (right to fair trial, right to private life and right to freedom of expression). The Court also had to consider the public interests and the principle of open justice/transparency in the Family Courts.
The parties’ positions were polar opposites, with Ms Wyatt arguing for the right to publish the terms and Mr Vince arguing they should be kept private and confidential. Mr Vince then refined his position to allowing publication on the condition that Ms Wyatt’s outstanding fees owed to her solicitor’s also be published (i.e. the likely net effect of her award be known). Ms Wyatt’s solicitors had not yet prepared their final bill so the final outstanding figure was not known at the time of the hearing.
Cobb J found that, whilst the strong starting point in financial remedies proceedings is the presumption of privacy, this presumption was rebutted for the following reasons (see paragraph 14):
(i) There had already been substantial information about the parties and their financial circumstances published;
(ii) Mr Vince did not disclose any, or any material, financial evidence that negated against publication and there was no commercially sensitive information disclosed that required protection from publication. Mr Vince had, in Cobb J’s words “run the ‘rich man’s defence’.
(iii) The public interest demanded that the outcome of the case be published, particularly as there was a legitimate interest in the publication of the figure that the parties agreed.
(iv) The public interest in knowing that the parties reached a negotiated settlement without a trial, as the public should know that an out-of-court compromise is achievable and highly desirable, even at a late stage of proceedings.
The terms of the agreement are therefore permitted to be published. However, Cobb J prohibited the publication of Ms Wyatt’s approximate outstanding costs and the likely net benefit to her of the agreement, once her costs had been taking into account. His reasons for finding that it would not be fair or just to publish the same were that she has not yet been given her final bill, it would be impossible to know with certainty what the net effect would be, and it would not be in the public interest for such potentially misleading information to be published about the outcome of this case, especially given that Mr Vince had not shared the amount of his own legal costs. He made no order as to costs for this hearing as the parties had each changed their positions during the course of the hearing.
The net effect of the settlement for Ms Wyatt is likely to remain unknown. It is likely that Mr Vince wanted to publish the likely net effect because it might show that in the end the balance is not much at all. This is not necessary as in the end Ms Wyatt did not succeed in obtaining an award of £1.9million and Mr Vince did not succeed in giving his ex-wife nothing. Whilst this case is very unusual, it does serve as a strong reminder to spouses and civil partners that they should settle their finances as soon as possible during divorce or dissolution.
It is best to focus on finding a settlement that is as fair and reasonable to both parties as is possible, given the aim is to ensure that the housing and income needs of both parties (and any minor children) are met. The sooner the financial arrangements are settled the better, particularly if proceedings have been issued. Costs for financial remedies proceedings are high and usually increase substantially between the FDR and Final Hearing.
If you require advice and/or assistance in reaching a financial settlement or making an application for financial remedies, please contact the family and divorce law team at Hanne & Co, where our experienced solicitors would be happy to help.