This article was first published by Solicitors Journal on 28/06/16, and is reproduced by kind permission.
After years of wrangling, it appears the contentious Wyatt v Vince case has finally come to an end.
Kathleen Wyatt was awarded a one-off lump sum of £300,000 from her ex-husband, Dale Vince, more than two decades after they had divorced. Considering Vince’s substantial wealth, the total payout may seem modest. Without re-treading the legal history of the case too much, the husband is the founder of an energy company with an estimated worth of £57m.The former couple parted without a clean break when they were young and penniless – but did so decades ago. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where both parties were unceremoniously told by their lordships that a modest payment was called for, despite the contrary views of the Court of Appeal.
The final wrangle ended when the court permitted publication of the agreed lump sum but ordered details of Wyatt’s costs to remain confidential.
Vince had sought permission to publish ‘the likely net benefit to the wife of the lump sum payment’. Perhaps he hoped to publish this as a warning to others who might be tempted to pursue contentious claims in court: even if you win, a huge costs bill may mean you end up not taking home much at all.
As Wyatt’s legal bill had not yet been finalised, however, it would be ‘potentially misleading’ to publish the settlement’s ‘actual financial impact on the parties’, the court ruled.
Despite this decision, Vince did not remain quiet and dubbed the whole case a waste of money. Only Wyatt will know after paying her bill if it was all worth it in the end, and, of course, we do not know the offers and counter-offers that may have been put by either side. But the issue of high legal costs, especially in the High Court, is a recurring one.
Family practitioners know that a stronger party can financially try to outgun the weaker spouse, safe in the knowledge it will increase their own bill but be worth it overall. Thus costs can rise on both sides if the other party does not back down. Perhaps justice would be better served if the old system was brought back and costs simply followed the event, at least in the High Court.
If we want a fairer outcome, a shake-up in costs rules is arguably overdue.