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Supreme Court reinstates wife’s financial claim against green energy boss

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom has reinstated a financial claim made by the ex-wife of a wealthy green energy pioneer.

In Wyatt v Vince, Dale Vince married Kathleen Wyatt in December 1981 and the couple went on to have a son together. Wyatt also had a daughter by a previous relationship. They lived a modest lifestyle and had little money and the relationship did not last. They separated in 1984, but did not complete their subsequent divorce until 1992.

Mr Vince become a New Age traveller before establishing Ecotricity, a Gloucestershire-based supplier of green energy produced by wind turbines. The company became highly successful and Mr Vince is now a wealthy man. Meanwhile, Ms Wyatt went on to have two further children, but she still has still has little money, alternating between periods of poorly paid work and a reliance on benefits.

Ms Wyatt launched legal proceedings against her ex-husband in 2011, seeking a lump sum payment as well as assistance with her legal costs. He, meanwhile, applied to have her claim ‘struck out’ (dismissed by the court) under the Family Procedure Rules 2010. These allow cases to be struck out if there are “no reasonable grounds” for pursuing them or if they are deemed to be an “abuse of the court’s process”.

A judge ruled against Mr Vince in December 2012, dismissing his application to have the case struck out and ordering him to make payments to Ms Wyatt’s solicitors to cover her legal costs. He appealed, and the decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal. Now retired Lord Justice of Appeal Lord Justice Thorpe came out strongly in favour of Mr Vince, stating that he was “not her insurer against life’s eventualities”.

Requring Mr Vince to fund his former wife’s claim against him was, added his Lordship, “not an outcome which the court can contemplate with equanimity, however wealthy the husband may be.”

She was ordered to repay the funds she had received from the Ecotricity owner. Ms Wyatt’s subsequent appeal went to the Supreme Court, which has now reversed the decision a second time.

In a unanimous ruling, Lord Wilson and his colleagues disagreed with the Court of Appeal’s interpretation of the Family Procedure Rules. These do not, he declared, provide the courts with a power to make ‘summary judgement ‘ on financial claims made by a spouse or former spouse – i.e. without proceeding to a trial. In addition, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 imposes a duty to fully consider the circumstances of a particular case, including “the contributions which each of the parties has made … to the welfare of the family, including any contribution by looking after the home or caring for the family.”

Consequently, Ms Wyatt’s claim was not an “abuse of process” and the Court of Appeal judgement had been mistaken in law. The case must therefore be sent back to the Family Division of the High Court, Lord Wilson ruled, and Mr Vince must resume payment of his ex-wife’s legal costs.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court judgement is robust in its assessment of the Ms Wyatt’s chances of ultimate success, stating:

“The wife’s application faces formidable difficulties. (a) The marital cohabitation subsisted for scarcely more than two years. (b) It broke down 31 years ago. (c) The standard of living enjoyed by the parties prior to the breakdown could not have been lower. (d) The husband did not begin to create his current wealth until 13 years after the breakdown. (e) The wife has made no contribution, direct or indirect, to its creation.”

Ms Wyatt could not provide a full explanation for much of the delay in pressing her case, His Lordship noted, and she would most likely only be entitled to a “modest” award in the eventual High Court hearing.

The Judgement also took time to describe Mr Vince as “clearly a remarkable man” who had “achieved brilliant success”.

Read the Supreme Court judgement here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. Luke says:

    I am glad that this ludicrous court decision is getting a high level of media coverage, having recently engaged in conversation with young men one of them brought up the subject of marriage and I was surprised how generally uninformed they were of the risks that they would be taking.
    The guy that brought it up was not keen on marriage but I was shocked at how ignorant they are of the sort of decisions that men are often handed out in divorce court.
    It seems I was previously incorrect in saying men getting married today have only themselves to blame as they are aware of how bad divorce is likely to be for them as men – lots of them STILL really don’t know…

  2. Andrew says:

    This case is BAD news, GOOD news, BAD news, and GOOD news.

    The BAD news is that she won; but in the absence of a limitation clause in the Matrimonial Causes Act I fear that that was inevitable.

    The GOOD news is that her greedy dream of £9m has been firmly squashed and she may get nothing at all.

    The BAD news is that she is still encouraged to hope for a home for herself and her almost adult children by another man; they are not her ex-husband’s responsibility.

    The GOOD news is that her entrepreneurial ex-husband’s pension is safe; there was no pension sharing when they got divorced.

    What is obvious is that a limitation should be introduced – I suggest one year from the nisi. After that people should be expected and allowed to get on with their lives without looking over their shoulders.

    • Nordic says:

      The only good news I can find in this judgement is the amount of negative publicity it has received, much of which portraits the Supreme Court judges as having taken leave of their senses. They richly deserve that.
      It’s irrelevant that she was told her initial claim was over the top. The precedent now established will be used to reopen decade old divorces up and down this country. Middle class families will waste their limited resources in futile fights. Old family conflicts will be reignited. Children will watch their mums and dads yet again embroiled in horrible arguments.
      There is nothing good about this judgement. It is an affront to all modern men and women and irresponsible to the point of being reckless.

  3. Nordic says:

    I gues one might simply view this judgement the final decent into an abyss of judicial madness. As a sign that our Supreme Court has lost its few remaining marbles along with any connection with the real world.
    But maybe that’s unfair. Maybe there is some logic to this judgement after all.It will spur on tons of new litigation and create new sources of acrimony and parental conflict in what is already the most acrimonous family justice system anywhere in Europe. While parents and their children will suffer, the legal industry will benefit hugely and maybe this was the true objective of the court. To look after the financial well being of the family law industry. In that case, this judgement makes perfect sense.
    PS: To those who want to leave Europe to prevent foreign judges from interfering in our internal issues, are you really sure you would prefer being at the mercy of an English Supreme Court judge?

  4. Luke says:

    “To those who want to leave Europe to prevent foreign judges from interfering in our internal issues, are you really sure you would prefer being at the mercy of an English Supreme Court judge?”
    Yes, it’s an argument FOR independence – because I think if the UK ever became independent the incoming government would implement a massive overhaul of the system, I think that would be almost inevitable.
    Of course the reality is that in the foreseeable future it is highly unlikely that either of these events will come to pass.

    • Nordic says:

      Luke, our archaic approach to family law is most certainly designed here. It has nothing to do with Europe (family law being an area completely in national control). Many of the countries that surround us, have family law system which incorporate many of the features we so desperately need here and which you argue so strongly for in other posts. This mad case could never have reached a court in places such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Holland, France and many other jurisdictions. By all means leave the EU and Europe, but do recognise that many of the failings in English society is decidedly home grown. Leaving will surely entrench English approaches and when it comes to family law, that is a terrible outcome.

      • Bobbie says:

        I recently saw a prison rights case argued to the Ninth Circuit at which the client made quite a show of coming up from the audience and hugging counsel in the ju1&7sg#82de; presence, immediately after the argument. It definitely appeared staged, designed to say to the judges, “Look, this client is a proper middle-class, middle-aged woman.”

  5. Luke says:

    Nordic, I am not arguing that Europe is responsible for our court decisions, it most certainly isn’t and yes the problem is home grown, however, being part of Europe for the last 40 years hasn’t changed things – only the loss of sovereignty to a United States of Europe would do that and I think that would be an appalling price to pay and one that we definitely don’t want.
    Where we disagree is that I don’t think leaving Europe would entrench the current approach, I think independence would prompt a rethink. The courts won’t reform themselves, there is too much money in the current set-up for them to do that, they have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world.
    Anyway, as I said previously, it’s all academic – none of it is likely to happen any time soon. The important thing men must learn is that they need to protect themselves from the court system, and the single most important thing that they can do is refrain from signing a marriage certificate.

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