Joanne Major, Principal of Major Family Law, the best divorce and family law specialists, comments in this month’s Luxe Magazine:
The case of Wyatt v Vince has, in the last couple of years, become perhaps the most infamous divorce settlement case in recent history. Legal action has been ongoing since 2011 when Ms Wyatt launched her claim for financial settlement against her former husband, Mr Vince.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Ms Wyatt was entitled to bring the claim notwithstanding that the parties had been divorced for some 18 years at the time the action was commenced, confirming that there is no time limit for ex-spouses to apply to a court for a financial settlement following a divorce.
Despite the length of time since the couple divorced, they had never obtained a final Order from the Court dismissing all financial claims against each other. Like many others, the couple – being somewhat impecunious throughout their relationship – believed there was no need to obtain any Order in respect of financial settlement when there was nothing to divide.
Subsequent to the divorce, however, Mr Vince found wealth and recognition with a green energy business he founded and is now a multi-millionaire. By comparison, Ms Wyatt, who raised the couple’s son alone, continued to live in modest circumstances.
Mr Vince had sought to have Ms Wyatt’s claim struck out without ever proceeding to a hearing on the basis there was no foundation for the claim. Such a process exists in general civil claims (where it is known as summary dismissal), and indeed most legal actions are subject to a time limit in which to bring the suit.
The Judges hearing the appeal to the Supreme Court were unanimous, however, in ruling that applications for financial settlement following divorce are not suitable for a summary determination as to whether the application should be allowed to proceed. They were clear that any such application should be considered irrespective of whether there appears any real prospects of the claim succeeding, unless the application is not legally recognisable. This would include where a financial Order had already been made or the Applicant had remarried.
Finally, this month, the application was heard by High Court Family Judge, Mr Justice Cobb who determined that Ms Wyatt was “entitled to receive a modest capital award following the breakdown of this marriage” approved the settlement the parties had negotiated by agreement of a £300,000 lump sum payment to be made by Mr Vince to Ms Wyatt.
Mr Vince earlier labelled the decision to allow Ms Wyatt’s claim to proceed as mad. Had he sought legal advice at the time the parties separated, he would almost certainly have been advised to pursue an order dismissing his and Mrs Wyatt’s respective claims to prevent any such future application should his financial position improve.
This would have saved him not only the £300,000 lump sum awarded, but also the additional £325,000 he has paid (by order of the court) towards Ms Wyatt’s costs. On top of that, of course, are his own legal costs which are likely to be staggering
There is a strong and clear lesson in this landmark decision: parties should seek to obtaining a financial remedy order within the divorce proceedings irrespective of their financial circumstances at the time. An Order simply dismissing each party’s financial claim (present and future) against the other (a “clean break” order), prevents a later claim like this one should one of the parties’ financial position change. A Decree Absolute is only evidence of the end of a parties’ marriage and does not bring an end to financial claims.