The Supreme Court has ruled that a wife is entitled to a financial settlement from her ex-husband despite separating over 31 years ago, finally divorcing in 1992. This is a particularly unusual case because of the long time delay in bringing the claim and the fact that, for a large proportion of that time neither party had, due to their alternative lifestyles, any visible means of support, other than state benefits.
The couple had two children, one of whom is the couple’s biological child and the other was from the wife’s previous relationship; both are now adults. In the late nineties, many years after the couple separated and several years after the divorce, the husband’s fledging wind turbine business took off and has been very successful: the husband is now a very wealthy individual.
Background to the case
No paperwork, other than the decree absolute, exists from the divorce proceedings so there is no evidence of any financial settlement being made in favour of the wife. The wife, Kathleen Wyatt, made various attempts to seek financial support from her ex-husband, Dale Vince, which failed because he was similarly impecunious at the time. After the divorce, Ms Wyatt entered another relationship by which she had two further children. In 2011, she made an application to the High Court for financial support and for interim payments to allow her to continue her claim. At the same time, Mr Vince applied to have the claim struck out under Rule 4.4 of the Family Procedure Rules. A deputy High Court judge dismissed his application to have the claim struck out and awarded Ms Wyatt costs of £125,000 to be paid to her legal advisers in installments. Mr Vince was given leave to appeal the decision.
The exceptional circumstances of this case were acknowledged by the Appeal Judges who considered that, under rule 4.4., the wife’s claim had no ‘reasonable grounds’ and that to proceed with the application would constitute ‘an abuse of the court’s process’ primarily because of the length of time taken to bring the claim - even though claims for financial support under family law are not time limited.
The Appeal Judges acknowledged that a lack of evidence to determine whether Ms Wyatt ever made a claim for financial support or the outcome of that claim, if was made, was not reason enough to have it struck out. Neither was it the court’s role to test whether the wife was telling the truth about her attempts to achieve a financial settlement (unless independent evidence is uncovered suggesting otherwise) so it would not be right to strike out the application without giving her a chance to prove her case.
Nonetheless, Mr Vince argued, and the court agreed, that when Ms Wyatt needed money to maintain her children, first she was in a relationship which was ‘tantamount to marriage’ and second, at that time he was not in a position to provide any financial support. To bring a claim so long after the event, when the children were grown up, was prejudicial to the husband under Rule 4.4 b).
As such the Appeal Judges struck out the wife’s application for financial support and ordered the costs allowance order to be set aside. Thorne J considered that the deputy High Court judge had acted too narrowly in his original decision and should have had a have a wider regard for the court’s resources by not bringing a ‘hopeless’ case. The court concluded that although there is no statutory limitation in bringing a claim in family cases, it is unreasonable for claims for financial relief to be brought 10, 20 or 30 years after the divorce. However, it was stated that any application to strike out under 4.4.b should only be made in very exceptional circumstances and must never be made just because the other side’s argument appears weak or is unlikely to succeed. Ms Wyatt appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court decision
The Supreme Court upheld the Ms Wyatt’s appeal and allowed her to continue with her claim for financial remedy on the basis that regardless of any time delay, it was not appropriate for the Appeal court to apply the Civil Procedure Rules relating to summary judgment, in a family law case. It also noted that the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 cannot be overlooked and all the circumstances relating the contribution of each party to the marriage, regardless of how modest they are or how flimsy the evidence, must be considered before a financial settlement can be arrived at. The court also restored the original costs allowance order to enable her to continue her claim.
On June 10, after years of protracted argument, the case was finally settled out of court. Ms Wyatt received £300,000 “in full and final satisfaction of all forms of financial relief (including claims as to income, capital, property adjustment, pension, and inheritance).”
The Supreme Court did state that the likelihood of her achieving the financial settlement (£1.9m) she originally wanted was remote and that any settlement would be very modest for the following reasons: first, the marriage was short lived and their standard of living was exceptionally low; it broke down over 30 years ago; the husband’s wealth was built up 13 years after the divorce; and she made no contribution to the success of the business and acquisition of wealth. Although the final sum she received was, as anticipated, small, it still represents significant nuisance value!
This case serves as a timely reminder to ensure that although a decree absolute brings a marriage to an end any financial claims must be finalised by a court order as part of a final divorce settlement so that the parties are in no doubt about the outcome. This case represents an opportunity for historic divorce settlements to be revisited by ex-spouses where one has become wealthier since the divorce and where no agreement to halt any future financial claims was made.