The Supreme Court decision in Vince v Wyatt [2015] is something of a landmark case for the interpretation of rule 4.4(1) of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR). That rule concerns the ability of the court to strike out family claims for lack of ‘reasonable grounds’ or ‘abuse of the court’s process’.

Vince v Wyatt centred upon a couple who were married in 1981 but who separated three years later. They were finally divorced in 1992. Neither party possessed any significant wealth during their marriage but the Mr Vince went on to establish a successful wind energy business in the late nineties.

Subsequent to the creation of Mr Vince’s new found wealth, Ms Wyatt made an application for a financial remedy before the Gloucester County Court in 2011. She also applied for an interimcosts allowance order of £125,000 to assist her in pursuit of her claim. Mr Vince sought to strike out the claim on the basis of undue delay under rule 4.4(1) of the FPR. Eventually, in 2015, the Supreme Court decided that the claim should not be struck out despite the considerable delay in bringing it.

Decision of the High Court

At first instance, the judge found for Ms Wyatt and granted her application for a costs allowance. He was of the opinion that her delay in issuing her application was potentially justifiable and that Mr Vince had not convinced the court that there were no reasonable grounds for bringing the claim or that it was an abuse of process.

Reversal in the Court of Appeal

The original decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal. Over the course of their judgment, the Appeal judges noted a number of legal points. They described rule 4.4 as being ‘complementary to the court’s inherent powers of case management’. This required them to interpret the rule not just in relation to the prejudice it might cause the parties but also with regards to the use of court resources. It therefore obliged them to dismiss hopeless claims. Also, the court made reference to the ‘extreme’ facts of the case. Lord Justice Thorpe stated that as the wife had lived an impecunious lifestyle during her life, she could not expect her ex-husband to suddenly be required to provide financially for her.

Supreme Court decides delay not enough to strike out claim

The case was appealed once again to the Supreme Court which allowed the appeal. It reviewed the decision of the Court of Appeal and the interpretation of the FPR and concluded that the court did not have the power to reach a summary judgment in family cases. This was an important limitation on the court’s authority to strike out family claims.

It stated that Ms Wyatt had a valid claim that must be properly considered. Its validity rested on the fact that it was legally recognisable, there having been no previous final determination of the proceedings and Ms Wyatt having not remarried. In addition, there was no abuse of process just because a claim had no real prospect of success. Lord Wilson did note however that Ms Watt “faces formidable difficulties in seeking to establish that a financial order should be made in her favour”.

Comment

This case provides us with a valuable insight into the interpretation of FPR 4.4(1). There is no express limitation period defined in the section which means divorcees that do not receive a final financial order remain at risk of a claim even after significant time has passed. Courts cannot simply strike out such family claims on the basis of a long delay alone, there must be lack of reasonable grounds or an abuse of process within the scope set out by the Supreme Court.