Many a man battling maintenance claims from former wives will cheer at a Court of Appeal ruling released today.
A former aid worker who attempted to claim maintenance from the now wealthy husband she divorced more than twenty years ago has lost her case. In an unanimous ruling, the judges said her claim for financial and housing support was “an abuse of the court’s process”.
Kathleen Wyatt married Dale Vince, now 51, in December 1981 and they had a son together before splitting in February 1984. At the time, both partners were receiving state benefits. They were eventually officially divorced in October 1992. Both had children in other relationships and Vince also spent time as a New Age traveller.
In 1995 Mr Vince founded Ecotricity, a highly successful supplier of wind energy based in Gloucestershire which is now thought to be worth at least £90 million. The firm enjoyed a turnover of more than £44 million in the year to 2011, supplying green power to around 70,000 customers.
Ms Wyatt, a former aid worker, launched a ‘financial remedy’ claim against Mr Vince in 2010, 18 years after the divorce. He countered by applying to have her claim struck out, under the Family Procedure Rules, but this was rejected by the High Court. The latter also ordered the entrepreneur to pay his former wife a ‘fighting fund’ of £125,000 to allow her to pursue the claim.
The green business magnate appealed and the Court of Appeal ruled unanimously in his favour. Lord Justices Thorpe, Jackson and Tomlinson said the case should never have been brought. Both were in new relationships when Ms Wyatt should have brought her claim and Mr Vince’s wealth was generated years after the end of their marriage.
Lord Justice Thorpe was, as ever, forthright in this conclusions:
“The facts of this case are extreme. Impecuniosity has been the experience of all of the wife’s adult life. Both the men with whom she has entered into family life were seemingly equally impecunious. Her husband was the most improbable candidate for affluence. The wife no doubt can appeal to his sense of charity but in my judgment he is not to be compelled to boost the wife’s income by the exercise of the jurisdiction under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. He is not her insurer against life’s eventualities.”
Lord Justice Jackson added that:
“… the court should not allow either party to a former marriage to be harassed by claims for financial relief which (a) are issued many years after the divorce and (b) have no real prospect of success.”
The judges also declared that Mr Vince should not be required to fund his wife’s claim, saying this was, in Lord Justice Jackson’s words, “not an outcome which the court can contemplate with equanimity, however wealthy the husband may be.”
I have spent many years as a family solicitor fighting to ensure that my clients receive fair settlements at the end of their marriages. Marriage is a partnership in English law – a two way endeavour – and it is entirely right that the very real contributions in time and support made by the less financially successful partner should be fully recognised in a fair divorce settlement. But the key word here is ‘fair’.
If Ms Wyatt had still been married to Mr Vince when Ecotricity was founded and developed, she would have been entitled to a substantial settlement because she would have made a contribution to its success. But the pair had been separated for more than a decade by that point.
As Lord Justice Thorpe rightly points out, the wealthier partner in a marriage – however wealthy they may be – should not be thought of as a lifetime insurance policy. Or a living, breathing savings plan. Or a cash machine.
I think this is an important ruling, one which will be quoted by other judges in years to come. But Lord Justice Jackson was also at pains to point out that applications to strike out such claims would:
“…only succeed in rare and exceptional cases. The case before this court falls into that category. Under no circumstances should parties start making applications to strike out, merely on the grounds that the other side’s case is weak or unlikely to succeed. The court will take a very dim view of any such conduct…”
You have been warned!