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.