The case involves former new age traveller and now green energy millionaire, Dale Vince. Ms Wyatt and Mr Vince married in 1981. They had a son, and Mr Vince also treated Ms Wyatt's daughter from a previous relationship as a child of family. They separated just 2 or 3 years later. Mr Vince lived the life of a new age hippie, travelling around the country and abroad in various converted camper vans and staying at traveller sites, whilst Ms Wyatt raised the parties' children in real hardship. The couple then divorced in 1992 but (although it is somewhat unclear as the Court file seems to have been lost) it seems that nothing was done to resolve any financial issues between them at that time. Of course, at that point, neither of them had any money whatsoever.
Some years later, Mr Vince OBE has built up a successful and valuable business - the green energy company Ecotricity. He is now reported to be worth in the region of £107 million. Somewhat belatedly, Ms Wyatt has now made an application within the English divorce proceedings for a lump sum to be paid to her by Mr Vince, which she quantifies (and the Court notes that this is with "questionable forensic wisdom") at £1.9 million. Mr Vince sought to defend this on the basis that she had lodged the claim too late.
In Scotland, once Decree of Divorce is granted, a spouse's claim for financial provision ends. It is not possible to make any further claim for financial provision after Decree of Divorce in Scotland, other than in extremely limited circumstances.
The situation in England is quite different - today's ruling reiterates that the approach in England and Wales is that there is no time limit south of the border for financial claims to be made following a divorce. Decree of Divorce does not bring an end to financial claims. Divorcing couples south of the border would usually be advised to have obtained orders from the court at the time of their divorce which would discharge their opportunity to make further financial claims in the future. The parties here did not take such a step presumably because there was not, at the time of divorce, any wealth to be claimed upon. Many English spouses may be in a similar situation.
In this case, Ms Wyatt's application for financial orders was initially allowed to proceed, but then dismissed by the Court of Appeal. It has now made its way right up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has allowed Ms Wyatt's application to proceed. This does not mean that she has been (as yet) granted any financial award - whether, and how much, she might receive will be determined at a later date. The Court has made it quite clear that her hoped-for sum of £1.9 million is "out of the question". The Court has noted that she will face "formidable difficulties" in persuading a Court to award her anything at all, given that the marriage lasted for scarcely more than 2 years; it broke down 31 years ago; the standard of living enjoyed by the parties prior to the breakdown could not have been lower; the husband did not begin to create his current wealth until 13 years after the separation and the wife made no contribution whatsoever to his wealth creation. A further, substantial argument is the wife's delay in bringing the Application - the Court accepted that she may have had no reason to do so while the husband was still poor, but when he began to generate his wealth from around 1997 onwards, why did she not bring an application then, rather than waiting a further 14 years?
The Court has indicated that despite these factors, there is a prospect of comparatively modest success for the wife, bearing in mind that she had the burden of care of the children of the family throughout most of their lives, without any financial assistance from the husband during that time. The indication is that she might achieve a sum to allow her to buy a comfortable and mortgage free home.
So what lessons can be learnt from this - both for divorcing or divorced couples, and for English and Scottish solicitors?
- For spouses who divorced some time ago, and cannot remember whether any Consent Order was put in place in relation to the finances, please check your paperwork! The Court should be able to advise you whether any such order was put in place. It is not too late to get this sorted out now (just in case you establish a multi-million pound business tomorrow).
- For a spouse who divorced some time ago but may still wish to make a claim, do not delay. The Court has made it clear that it is possible to do so, even if the wealth on which you are claiming was generated by your ex-spouse after the divorce. But if your claim is to be allowed, the sooner you make it the better.
- For English solicitors - be aware that the situation in Scotland is different. We have had a number of cases where English solicitors have been unaware that it is critical to resolve any financial claims arising from a marriage prior to the date of divorce in Scotland.
- For Scottish solicitors - be aware that if spouses move away from Scotland after entering into a financial agreement, but before obtaining divorce, the Scottish agreement relating to finances may not be binding upon the English or other foreign Court. A Scottish agreement about finances would not have barred a spouse in Ms Wyatt's position from making a claim to the English Court.
Lastly, if you wish to be absolutely clear that there is no ongoing financial obligation between you and an ex-spouse, it would be safer to divorce in Scotland! Mr Vince may be wishing he had travelled north of the border and applied for divorce here, where his post-separation fortune would be safe from his ex-wife's claim.