The Supreme Court has today allowed an appeal from a wife who argued that her claim for a lump sum from her ex-husband should not have been 'struck out' by the Court of Appeal, despite the fact that her application was made 22 years after her divorce was finalised. The ruling in Vince v Wyatt [2015] UKSC 14 will reinforce England’s reputation as the most favourable jurisdiction for divorce for applicant wives. The court made it clear that there is no statutory time limit for seeking a financial order following a divorce. This decision could lead to a flood of delayed claims from spouses whose claims for financial provision have been left undetermined even years after a divorce. 

BACKGROUND

Kathleen Wyatt and Dale Vince met in 1981 and married in December of that year. At the time neither of them had any assets or income. Ms Wyatt already had a child from a previous relationship and the parties subsequently had a child together in the early part of 1983. Mr Vince treated both children as his own. The parties separated in 1984 after just over two years of marriage, still with no assets or income to speak of. Mr Vince then went on to live as a 'new age traveller', driving and living in an old ambulance for around eight years. During this time he provided no financial support for either of the children. The couple divorced on 26 October 1992. 

Ms Wyatt went on to have two more children with other partners, but never remarried. She is now aged 55 and has very limited means. By contrast Mr Vince has ‘achieved brilliant success’ since the divorce. His interest in green energy led him to develop the commercial supply of wind power and he is now the sole shareholder of Ecotricity Group Limited, which is worth at least £57 million.

In 2011 Ms Wyatt made an application in the divorce proceedings for a lump sum and payments to fund her legal costs. Mr Vince applied for his ex-wife’s application to be struck out pursuant to rule 4.4 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010. His application for strike out was dismissed by the High Court in December 2012 and he was ordered to make interim payments to Ms Wyatt’s solicitors in respect of her legal costs. He successfully appealed the High Court’s decision. In judgments delivered on 8 and 13 June 2013 the Court of Appeal struck out Ms Wyatt’s application and ordered her to reimburse Mr Vince for part of the money paid to her solicitors in respect of her legal costs. She appealed to the Supreme Court. 

DECISION

Lord Justices Hale, Clarke, Wilson, Hughes and Hodge unanimously allowed Ms Wyatt’s appeal in their judgment which was handed down this morning.

The Supreme Court carefully considered the court’s jurisdiction under rule 4.4 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 to strike out the wife’s application. Under rule 4.4 the court has the power to strike out an application if a party appears to have no reasonable grounds for bringing their claim, or if it would be an abuse of the court’s process to let it proceed. This mirrors the grounds upon which a civil court may strike out a case. However, the court found that a crucial distinction is that under the civil rules the court is able to summarily assess the claimant’s (or defendant’s) prospect of success and give judgment on this basis. It found that there was no equivalent power of summary judgment in the family rules.

The Supreme Court decided that the omission of provision for summary judgment in the family rules was deliberate. When a husband or wife brings a claim for financial provision upon divorce, the court must determine their application having regard to the individual facts of the case and the factors set out in section 25 (2) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. The Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeal was wrong effectively to have summarily assessed the wife’s case, when this is not what was intended by rule 4.4 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010.

Ms Wyatt’s application for a lump sum has therefore been allowed to proceed in the Family Division of the High Court, her costs allowance order has been restored and the repayment order has been set aside. Lord Wilson stated that Ms Wyatt faces ‘formidable difficulties’ in her application for financial provision given the short duration of the marriage and her long delay in bringing her application. However, the court indicated she could anticipate 'comparatively modest' provision of a mortgage free house for herself and her dependants.

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF THIS RULING?

Even if a couple have little or no money at the time they divorce, if one of them makes money later, he or she could still face a claim from an ex-spouse unless there was a proper financial settlement at the time of the divorce. If in any doubt about whether potential financial claims have been settled in full upon divorce, people should seek advice from a solicitor specialising in family law.