Wyatt v Vince – The result and the lesson

The facts of the Wyatt v Vince case were pretty unusual. If you didn’t know, here’s what happened:

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Extraordinary Facts

Ms Wyatt and Mr Vince married in 1981 and had a son, Dane. Ms Wyatt already had a daughter at the time. The date of their separation is disputed – Mr Vince claims they separated in 1984, Ms Wyatt says it was some years later. If Mr Vince is correct, the ruling comes over 30 years after the couple separated, which is 10 times as long as the couple were together. Either way, Ms Wyatt and Mr Vince’s divorce was granted in 1992, over 20 years ago.

The court heard that when the couple were together they lived a New Age traveller lifestyle and had no money at all. However in 1995, three years after the couple’s divorce, Mr Vince formed the green energy company Ecotricity which is now said to be worth at least £57million. Ms Wyatt is apparently still penniless.

The Ruling

This is a very narrow point of law, partly technical. The Court of Appeal had struck out Ms Wyatt’s claim on the basis of new court rules allowing that if the case had no prospect of success, or was an abuse of process, it could be rejected. The Supreme Court granted her appeal against that order, allowing her to pursue her financial claim. It referred to previous cases allowing financial claims after a very long time.

The key point to remember is that the Supreme Court isn’t making financial orders in Ms Wyatt’s favour, just that she should be allowed to make those claims. Delivering the ruling, Lord Wilson acknowledged that she faces “formidable difficulties” in making her claim succeed and that the £1.9m pay-out Ms Wyatt hoped to secure is too high.

Legal Issues

Why didn’t Mr Vince ask for a Clean Break Order (meaning that each spouse becomes financially independent of each other and cannot claim money at a later date) as part of the divorce process in 1992? The reasons for this may be:

  • They had no money at the time and it didn’t seem important

  • Ms Wyatt may not have been receptive to this

  • Legal aid might not have been granted, being seen as throwing good money after bad

Even so, why didn’t Mr Vince do so after he became wealthy? He probably thought it best to let sleeping dogs lie. Unfortunately for him, he is now learning the law the hard way.

The clear message we’d give to everyone getting divorced is: Don’t put the cart before the horse, and tie up all your loose ends.  Take legal advice early. We’ve had many cases where people have done a deal, or handed money over on trust, and regretted it. Or not bothered to get a financial order from the court as part of the divorce – just like in this case.

The challenges for Ms Wyatt

  • The marriage was very short, and the separation very long

  • The standard of living in the marriage was non-existent

  • All Mr Vince’s wealth was created many years later

  • Ms Wyatt played no part in creating his wealth

  • There was an extraordinary delay in bringing proceedings

A glimmer of hope?

There are two children of the family, cared for by Ms Wyatt for many years after the separation, during which time she says Mr Vince did not support them. She therefore had financial needs arising at least partly from the marriage, and made a major contribution by bringing the children up. But the children were financially independent by 2001. They are not part of her needs now. In fact they are 36 and 31, and the youngest lives with Mr Vince.  Ms Wyatt would have had a stronger claim before 2001, but was Mr Vince worth as much then?  Almost certainly not. Is this claim opportunistic?

Ms Wyatt may still have financial needs now – she is 55, in poor health and lives in a house in a poor state of repair – though the court would expect her to have done her best to address those needs.  It remains to be seen what Ms Wyatt has to say on this. The court may be prepared to make provision for modest needs, which would amount to a minuscule fraction of Mr Vince’s fortune and would presumably be of little financial consequence to him.

Ms Wyatt’s solicitors would have wanted to be 100% satisfied that she fully understood the risks involved in the case before taking it on. They are relying on Mr Vince funding her legal fees, and the court has made orders allowing that – which does seem fair, as otherwise Ms Wyatt would have no access to justice following the demise of legal aid, and Mr Vince can obviously afford it.

The result and the lesson

Those who heard about the case may recall that it involved a couple who married in 1981, had one child together and separated a couple of years later, divorcing in 1992.  During the relationship and at the time of their divorce Mr Vince and Ms Wyatt had very little money, having lived a New Age traveller lifestyle.

Fast forward over twenty years and Ms Wyatt’s situation was roughly the same, in and out of work and living in substandard accommodation.  Mr Vince’s fortunes, however, had dramatically changed after he set up the green energy company Ecotricity – worth, by now, £57m.

The divorce had been finalised in 1992, so what was the problem? The problem (for Mr Vince) was that although the divorce had been finalised, no financial order had been made, leaving Ms Wyatt’s financial claims against Mr Vince wide open.

Mr Vince’s application to the court to strike out Ms Wyatt’s case due to the length of time that had elapsed since the divorce was ultimately unsuccessful, meaning that the court had to decide what, if anything, Ms Wyatt should get from her ex-husband’s fortunes.

An agreement was finally reached that Ms Wyatt would have a lump sum of £300,000 in full and final settlement of all financial claims that she could make against Mr Vince.

The figure of £300,000 may well have been arrived at to provide Ms Wyatt with a home to meet her needs. 

But what was the cost to Ms Wyatt of bringing the proceedings? Mr Vince was very vocal in his disapproval of his ex-wife being able to start financial proceedings so long after their separation and divorce.   He argued through the court that Ms Wyatt should be required to disclose how much she had spent in legal costs.  Mr Vince had already been ordered to pay her legal fees in connection with both the initial hearings and Ms Wyatt’s legal costs for last year’s appeal to the Supreme Court on the issue of whether or not she should be allowed to proceed with a financial application.

What is certain is that the costs for both Mr Vince and Ms Wyatt will have been substantial, and indeed may well eat into the lump sum Ms Wyatt has received, even after the payments Mr Vince has to make towards her fees.

Was it worth it, then?  For Ms Wyatt, maybe. For Mr Vince, definitely not.  He learnt a very hard lesson about the importance of addressing and finalising financial issues at the same time as a divorce. At Goughs we will always help you to look at what financial agreement is in your interests, the different ways in which a settlement can be negotiated and reached, and will ensure that your financial future is paramount. We’ll never let you fall into the trap in which Mr Vince found himself.

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