By Laura Dand, Goodman Ray
Ms Wyatt and her husband Mr Vince were married on 18 December 1981. They had a son and Mr Vince also treated Ms Wyatt’s daughter from a previous relationship as his child. They separated in 1984 and for around eight years after that Mr Vince pursued a new age travelling lifestyle. Ms Wyatt brought up the children and Mr Vince was not in a position to make any substantial financial contribution.
The couple divorced in October 1992. They did not reach a financial settlement at the time. Ms Wyatt went on to have two more children and from the late 90s Mr Vince’s green energy business boomed and he became a multi-millionaire. Ms Wyatt’s financial circumstances remained very modest, living “hand to mouth”.
In 2011 Ms Wyatt applied to the court for financial provision from Mr Vince. She also applied for payments to cover her legal costs. Mr Vince sought to strike out his ex-wife’s application on the basis that (a) there were no reasonable grounds for bringing the application and (b) the application was an abuse of the court’s process. In December 2012 a High Court judge dismissed Mr Vince’s strike out application and he was ordered to make payments in respect of legal costs to Ms Wyatt’s solicitors.
Mr Vince successfully appealed this decision in the Court of Appeal and the Court of Appeal struck out Ms Wyatt’s application for financial provision, and ordered her to repay part of the legal cost allowance.
She subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court and the Judgment was handed down by the Supreme Court on 11 March 2015. The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the appeal and directed that Ms Wyatt’s application proceed in the family court. The costs allowance was restored and the repayment order set aside.
When a spouse or ex spouse applies for financial provision the court must consider section 25(1) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, and:
- the income, earning capacity, property and other financial resources which each of the parties to the marriage has or is likely to have in the foreseeable future, including in the case of earning capacity any increase in that capacity which it would in the opinion of the court be reasonable to expect a party to the marriage to take steps to acquire;
- the financial needs, obligations and responsibilities which each of the parties to the marriage has or is likely to have in the foreseeable future;
- the standard of living enjoyed by the family before the breakdown of the marriage;
- the age of each party to the marriage and the duration of the marriage;
- any physical or mental disability of either of the parties to the marriage;
- the contributions which each of the parties has made or is likely in the foreseeable future to make to the welfare of the family, including any contribution by looking after the home or caring for the family;
- the conduct of each of the parties, if that conduct is such that it would in the opinion of the court be inequitable to disregard it.
The application made by Ms Wyatt was legally recognisable and was not an abuse of process solely on the basis that Mr Vince said it had no real prospect of success. What is not clear is whether Ms Wyatt will now be able to sustain her claim on the basis of a need generated by her relationship with Mr Vince, given the short duration of the marriage and the substantially long delay since then. However; the court must have regard to the contributions which each of the parties has made to the welfare of the family including Ms Wyatt’s contribution by looking after the home and caring for the family. This factor may justify her receiving a comparatively modest sum.
In relation to Ms Wyatt’s application for a costs allowance the court had to consider whether Ms Wyatt could reasonably be expected to secure legal services by any other means. The court felt it would be unreasonable to expect her solicitors to continue to act without payment and therefore this test was satisfied.
It is highly unusual for a financial claim to be made by an ex-spouse some 22 years after the divorce and will send a shiver down the spine of many divorcees who may not have sorted out a financial settlement at the time of their divorce. In the absence of Ms Wyatt’s remarriage, Mr Vince has remained vulnerable to Ms Wyatt’s claim as a result of their marriage, despite the short duration of the marriage and length of time post-divorce. It highlights the importance of ensuring that all financial matters are finalised swiftly at the time of divorce and a court order is obtained. It is also advisable that anyone who has been through a divorce but does not have a financial order in place review their situation as they may face a claim on any wealth they have accrued since then.
Link to BBC news story here.