The Supreme Court judgment has caused quite a stir since it was handed down on the 11 March 2015. Contrary to what the media has reported thus far, Ms Wyatt has not obtained a financial order for any maintenance, spousal or otherwise. In essence, she won the appeal in that her application for financial remedies will now be allowed to proceed and shall be heard in the High Court.
The couple met in 1981 and were married in December that year. Miss Wyatt has a daughter from a previous relationship, who Mr Vince treated as his own. The couple later had a son. The family were of modest means. In 1984, the parties separated and Mr Vince became a traveller. The party divorced in 1992, with decree absolute being granted on 26 October 1992. The court file was then transferred to a different court were it was either destroyed or mislaid. Mr Vince went on to found his green energy company, Ecotricity, in the mid-1990s which was very successful and lead to him becoming a millionaire. During this time, Ms Wyatt struggled to provide for the children and to secure permanent housing. She currently resides in a property which remains in a poor state of repair with her three daughters.
In 2011, Ms Wyatt made an application for financial orders, in particular for a lump sum of £1.9million, and for a costs allowance order. Mr Vince cross-applied for her application to be struck-out pursuant to Rule 4.4 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010. The High Court dismissed Mr Vince’s cross-application and ordered that he pay the costs allowance directly to Ms Wyatt’s solicitors. Mr Vince appealed.
The Court of Appeal allowed his appeal, set aside the orders of the High Court, ordered that Ms Wyatt’s application be struck out and that she repay some of the money Mr Vince had paid to her solicitors. The Court of Appeal held that Ms Wyatt did not have any reasonable grounds for bringing her application, whilst Jackson LJ went further to suggest that her application was an abuse of process because it had no real prospect of success. Ms Wyatt appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court held that it was likely that there were previous financial remedy proceedings in which the court made no order but that it very unlikely that an application by the wife had previously been dismissed. The appeal raised a procedural point in relation to the interpretation of the power to strike out an application under Rule 4.4 FPR 2010. The Supreme Court went on to judge that the Court of Appeal was wrong to strike out Ms Wyatt’s application because:
(i) there is no power of summary judgment in the Family Procedure Rules, so that Jackson LJ was incorrect in his assessment of Ms Wyatt’s application as an abuse of process;
(ii) Rule 4.4(1) has to be interpreted in line with the overriding objective, and a correct interpretation as to whether there are reasonable grounds to bring such an application cannot include looking at the prospects of success;
(iii) As such, it could not be said that Ms Wyatt’s application failed to disclose reasonable grounds for bringing it.
Ms Wyatt’s quest for a lump sum is not without difficulties, as stated in paragraph 30 onwards of the Supreme Court judgment. Whilst there is no limitation period for issuing financial remedy proceedings, the fact that there is at least a 10 year delay period for which Ms Wyatt has no explanation is just one of the many difficulties facing her application. This case has very unusual facts; therefore it does not follow that the floodgates will open for former spouses to apply for financial orders years after a divorce. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on couples to settle their financial arrangements after the breakdown of a relationship as soon as possible. This can be by application to the court, by a negotiated agreement recorded in an approved consent order or by a formal Deed. Either way parties should not leave matters open.
If you need advice on this area or need help in negotiating an agreement or bringing an application please contact the family law team here at Hanne & Co