The Supreme Court recently week handed down its decision in Wyatt v Vince, a case which has troubled both the headlines and anyone that divorced in the last decade or two.
Mr Vince and Ms Wyatt met and married in 1981. They had one child during the marriage. Ms Wyatt also had a child from a previous relationship who was treated as a child of the marriage. The marriage lasted for just two years, although they did not divorce until 1992.
Money was tight for both parties both during the marriage and for some considerable period after. The couple largely subsisted on state benefits and, once divorced, Mr Vince lived in a converted ambulance. However, Mr Vince's fortunes changed dramatically some time after the divorce and he is currently the sole shareholder of green electricity company, Ecotricity Group Ltd (currently valued at at least £57m). Ms Wyatt, by contrast, continues to experience severe financial difficulties.
It seems that when the parties divorced, no financial order was made. In any event, Mr Vince did not make any significant regular financial provision for Ms Wyatt or either of the children until 2001, largely because he had no money. Ms Wyatt now seeks to redress that situation.
The Legal Action
In 2011, 19 years after the divorce, Ms Wyatt applied for financial orders to be made in her favour and sought payment of a lump sum in satisfaction of all her claims. She also sought her costs in the sum of £125,000 (which Mr Vince has since paid).
The Court of Appeal struck her claim out in 2013 and ordered that the costs be repaid. However, the Supreme Court has now overturned that decision and ruled that Ms Wyatt can pursue her application. It found that Ms Wyatt's claim was legally recognisable, was not an abuse of process and had a real prospect of success. Further, the substantial delay was no basis for striking out it out.
The Supreme Court did, however, find that Ms Wyatt's case faced a number of "formidable" difficulties, most of which were connected to the significant passage of time since the marriage had broken down. Therefore, Ms Wyatt will now be able to pursue her application for a financial order but there is no guarantee that it will result in any payment to her. Mr Vince, however, is likely to be left bearing the parties' legal costs in any event.
So what does this mean for lawyers and their clients? The news that there is no limitation date in these types of cases, unlike almost every other type of litigation, is no news at all – although, it would not be surprising if this case leads to calls that this 'loophole' should be closed. This case, although unusual, is not unique either; Euro Millions winner Michael Page paid £2m to his former wife in an out of court settlement 10 years after they divorced, having also failed to negotiate a clean break settlement.
The case is likely to have limited application as it only applies where no financial orders are in place. Those who agreed a Financial Order upon divorcing can therefore breathe a sigh of relief.
However, anyone who divorced without ensuring Financial Orders were put in place could be forgiven for breaking out in a cold sweat upon hearing that Ms Wyatt claims a cool £1.9m (although the Supreme Court was not impressed by that figure). Anyone who has been separated for some time but is not yet divorced may feel the same. There may be a large number of people in that particular boat, particularly in the light of the recent legal aid cuts; some reports suggest that there are around 50,000 divorces a year with no accompanying financial remedy.
We can therefore expect to see a rise in claims from divorced spouses years after the event. Lawyers and their insurers can also expect a flurry of speculative claims from clients who are the subject of those claims, particularly those whose financial situation has improved post-divorce. We already see numerous claims against solicitors relating to pension sharing orders upon divorce so these types of claims may simply follow in the same vein.
Therefore the lesson for anyone who does not want to spend a lifetime looking over their shoulder is to ensure that any financial arrangement is properly structured and recorded, whether they currently have assets worth protecting or not. Divorce lawyers would do well to advise their clients accordingly (and to make sure that there is a clear record of that advice being given) in order to avoid professional negligence claims potentially years in the future.