Last March, when the Supreme Court gave the green light to a wife's application for financial remedy over 20 years since her divorce was finalised, the media went into an indignant frenzy. None were quite so outraged of course as her ex-husband, Mr Dale Vince, founder of the wind-power firm Ecotricity. However, this decision simply confirmed the legal position, i.e. there is no time limitation for bringing an application for financial remedy on divorce.
The parties met and married in 1981. There were two children of the family (one from Mrs Wyatt's previous relationship) and the family survived on state benefits. Following their separation in 1984, Mr Vince opted for the 'new age traveller' existence and, as such, was able to provide little to no support to his family. While Mr Vince's ingenuity led to him becoming incredibly affluent, Mrs Wyatt's financial predicament remained "extremely modest".
Mrs Wyatt originally pitched her claim at £1.9million. The settlement reached by the parties in May 2016 provided for a 'clean break' between them (something which should have been addressed when they divorced in 1992), with a lump sum payment to Mrs Wyatt of £300,000 together with her being allowed to retain a total of approximately £326,000 from Mr Vince towards her legal costs.
In approving the settlement, Mr Justice Cobb described the settlement as "reasonable" on the basis that "the wife was entitled to receive a modest capital award following the breakdown of the marriage" and that the "lump sum payment agreed between the parties fairly represented a realistic and balanced appraisal of the unusual circumstances of the case". Most of the media reporting since has jumped on the term "modest" in describing the sum of £300,000, whilst still belabouring the fact that the parties had been divorced some 24 years before this agreed order was made.
Both of these sensationalist criticisms fail to observe the lesson to be learned from this case.
In the case of Wyatt and Vince, the court found that Mrs Wyatt was entitled to live in a home mortgage-free. The award being described as 'modest' has to be seen in the context of the value of the husband's business, which has been reported as being worth between £57 and £107 million. Proportionately therefore, whilst £300,000 to most of us could hardly be described as a modest amount, it actually only equates to between roughly 0.3% and 0.5% of the value of the business. Clearly, the wife's original claim for £1.9 million was completely unrealistic, and it was dismissed by the courts as such.
The Family Court also decided that it was in the public interest that the outcome of the case be revealed, waiving the starting point of privacy for parties in family proceedings in light of the fact that the majority of the details of the case had already been extensively published and were therefore already in the public domain. It was also seen as a good opportunity to publicise the fact that the parties had been able to reach a negotiated agreement without going to a trial.
Any family solicitor will advise a party to a divorce that if the issues of the matrimonial finances are not resolved and claims for financial remedy between the parties are not dismissed, those claims have no time limit. The 'fairness' of one ex-spouse coming back either 20 or 40 years after divorce to resolve the finances is not the issue – the law clearly provides that claims must be dismissed by the court or they still stand. This encourages parties to address their financial affairs on divorce and promotes a 'clean break' situation being reached between them so that they can go on to live financially independent of one another (assuming the circumstances allow).
Furthermore, dismissing financial claims on divorce prevents either party (except in specific circumstances where there are issues of mistake, fraud, undue influence or duress) from having "another bite at the apple" at a later date. This case does not highlight supposed unfairness of the law in this area, it highlights the crucial importance of both parties to a divorce obtaining legal advice and acting on it.