So it seems the drawn-out saga of Wyatt v Vince has finally drawn to a close, with the agreement of a one-time lump sum payment. It hasn’t been pretty. It’s been an ugly case, with Mr Vince giving many interviews in which he cast himself in the role of victim. Was he? Was he really?
Kathleen Wyatt, of Redbrook in South Wales, will receive £300,000 from former husband Dale Vince “in full and final satisfaction of all forms of financial relief (including claims as to income, capital, property adjustment, pension, and inheritance).”
The facts of a case described as Mr Justice Cobb as “extraordinary” are worth a brief recap. In 2011, Wyatt made a claim for financial relief against her ex-husband. So far so ordinary. There was one problem however, and it was a big one. They had separated more than 25 years previously, in the mid 1980s. Both were penniless at the time and Mr Vince later become a New Age traveller. A formal divorce followed in 1992: a mere 19 years before Mrs Wyatt’s claim.
But wait, there’s more. While Kathleen struggled with low paid work and periods of unemployment, Mr Vince founded a green energy supplier (essentially wind power via turbines). Based in Stroud, a small Cotswolds town close to Cheltenham and Gloucester, Ecotricity has enjoyed tremendous success and now has an estimated market value of £57 million. It was founded several years after the couple’s decree absolute, so the wealth Mr Vince now enjoys was entirely what lawyers terms ‘post-separation accrual’.
Despite the passage of time, Wyatt’s claim met with initial success, only to then be described as an “abuse of the court’s process “ and thrown out by the Court of Appeal.
But Mrs Wyatt pressed on – in uncertain circumstances – all the way to the Supreme Court, and there the tables turned once again. Lord Wilson and his fellow Judges of the Supreme Court pointed out that under Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act, her contributions to the family should be taken into account and declared that her legal claim did have legal validity after all. There is no time limit, either, in making a claim. The case should, therefore, be sent back to the lower courts for determination they declared. Strong pointers were, however, given to the parties. The former wife could not expect to receive anything other than a modest settlement.
Several further months of wrangling clearly followed. Having previously insisted he was making a stand on a point of principle, even Mr Vince may have begun to tire of the fight by this point. Most likely costs were also an issue, because in a straight fight involving no appeal no order for costs against the losing party is usual. That may too have been a factor for the ex-wife too. The former couple negotiated the settlement figure and Mr Justice Cobb was invited to approve this.
And in a brand new judgement published today, he did so, saying:
“I am perfectly satisfied that it is reasonable, and that the wife is entitled to receive a modest capital award following the breakdown of this marriage; the lump sum payment agreed between the parties fairly represents, in my view, a realistic and balanced appraisal of the unusual circumstances of the case…I appreciate that the husband does not see it this way, having explicitly offered this sum merely to weigh off this litigation at this stage as cost-effectively as he can.”
But there was one last twist to come. Late in the day, Mr Vince insisted on the addition of an agreement on mutual confidentiality– in other words, neither party would be able to discuss the case with the media or publish details of it.
The wife would not agree and her solicitors eventually issued what is known as a Dean summons – a requirement that one party demonstrate in court why something should be the case.
The husband then backed down, so there was no need for the scheduled Dean summons hearing to go ahead. However, costs had already been incurred. So who should pay those? And had the company director’s original request for confidentiality been reasonable?
In the High Court, Mr Justice Cobb had little hesitation in concluding that:
“By this stage therefore, the parties had agreed that the need for the Dean summons had been overtaken by events, having been issued only because the husband had taken a position on undertakings which… he had then abandoned. In these circumstances, I see no reason why the wife should not be entitled to recovery of the costs of issuing the Dean summons…”
He was therefore ordered to make a contribution of £1,000 to the costs incurred.
The question of publicity centred around whether or not details of the judgement could be discussed or published. The husband’s counsel argued that there was no public interest in doing so, and that the normal presumption of privacy in financial remedy proceedings should apply.
Wyatt’s lawyers meanwhile stressed that no commercially confidential information featured in the case and that most of the details were already public knowledge following the previous judgements. They also pointed to the fact that Mr Vince had previously spoken to the media about the dispute on a number of occasions, in “uncompromising terms”.
Mr Justice Cobb came down in favour of publication, saying he was “entirely satisfied that the parties should be at liberty to publish the final order agreed between them”.
Much of each party’s circumstances had already been published and discussed in the media, he explained, so the normal presumption of privacy no longer applied. In addition, publication of the terms of the settlement was in the public interest, given the attention that the case had attracted, both in legal circles and amongst the public at large. The parties had, in the end, been able to negotiate an out-of-court settlement, and that was a matter of public interest too he declared.
The Judge rejected, however, a suggestion by Mr Vince’s legal team that he should be allowed the publish “the likely net benefit to the wife of the lump sum payment”: that is to say, the amount she would actually take away with her following settlement of her legal costs, which have reportedly not yet been tallied. The implication, of course, was that there may not be much of the overall settlement left.
Given that the final bill had not yet been finalised or negotiated, the Judge believed it was “plainly not in the public interest for potentially misleading information to be published about the outcome of this case, and its actual financial impact on the parties.”
Publication of the figures was therefore prohibited. But even so, Mr Vince has not been slow in speaking to the media, claiming it was all a waste of money.
So, was it all worth it?Years of stressful court room confrontations and rancorous wrangling with the father of one of your children for a “modest” sum, much of which will most likely be swallowed by costs anyway? Ultimately only Kathleen Wyatt herself can answer that. What has the impact of it all been on her I wonder? To the best of my knowledge she has so far made no comment – perhaps now she will. But as I see it, if we had had costs rules that stopped the stronger, richer party in a case from forcing their poorer counterpart to litigate it all the way to the top to get a modest payout, justice would have been far better served. In this case, I’d have hit him hard for indemnity (compensatory) costs if I were the Judge and he had indeed forced her to proceed in this way without making an offer near to the amount she eventually received. Assuming, of course, her position was as modest as the Supreme Court believed. At the end of the day we don’t know the cut and thrust, and whether any offers that were made by either side.
But as we’ve said many times on this blog, and so have others too –
It’s the costs rules that need changing, not the time limits.
The ruling can be here.