By Hana Khodabocus, Solicitor, Family Department, stevensdrake
On 11th March 2015, Kathleen Wyatt was granted permission by the Supreme Court to continue with her application for a financial order against her former husband, Dale Vince. At a first glance, these facts do not appear to be exceptional; however it is the background to the case that makes it highly unusual.
Ms Wyatt and Mr Dale met whilst at university in 1981 and married shortly afterwards. They had one child together and Ms Wyatt also had a child from a former relationship who was accepted as part of their family.
During their marriage, the parties lived meagrely, surviving on state benefits. They separated after a short marriage in 1983, and both parties moved on with new partners, Ms Dale going on to have two more children. Their divorce was finalised in 1992.
In the late 1990s, Mr Dale started a green energy business called Ecotricity, which gradually became successful and today is estimated to be worth around £57m. In contrast, Ms Wyatt continued to struggle financially.
Proceedings to date
In 2011, Ms Wyatt issued an application to start financial remedy proceedings against Mr Dale and was seeking a £1.9m lump sum. Mr Dale in turn applied to strike out her application on the ground that there was no reasonable prospect of it succeeding.
At first instance, the district judge dismissed Mr Dale’s application, which he sought to appeal. The Court of Appeal overturned the first decision, which led to Ms Wyatt appealing to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has now unanimously ruled in her favour by allowing her appeal.
Ms Wyatt will need to return to the High Court in order to proceed with her original application.
In response to the Supreme Court’s judgment, Mr Dale said:
“I feel we all have the right not to be looking over our shoulders. This could signal open season for people who had brief relationships a quarter of a century ago…”
It is unlikely that Ms Wyatt will receive £1.9m that she is claiming on the basis that her application for financial relief was made after considerable delay and the fact that the marriage itself was of a short duration. However, the Supreme Court did consider that she had made a significant contribution to the welfare of the family by looking after their children, and such a contribution should not be confined to any particular time period i.e. during the marriage or prior to separation. For this reason, the court concluded that a financial order for a modest lump sum to help Ms Wyatt re-house herself in a comfortably may possibly be justified.
This case has set a precedent in that the court chose not to close the door on a financial application made after a very lengthy period of separation between the parties. However, this case is highly fact-specific, not least because of the 30 year separation between the parties that preceded Ms Wyatt’s application, and the great fortune amassed by Mr Dale since their divorce. It is therefore highly unlikely that similar cases will be heard in the lower courts throughout the country.
Notwithstanding this, the case highlights the importance of resolving financial issues at the same time as a divorce. As demonstrated by the parties in this case, a failure to do so will mean that financial claims can still be made by former spouses regardless of how long ago their divorce was finalised.
Indeed, whatever the outcome of this case, both Ms Wyatt and Mr Dale will incur massive legal costs which could have been avoided had proper advice been sought at the time of their separation.