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Wyatt v Vince – 20 year divorce settlement and fees

The dispute between Dale Vince, the self-made multi-millionaire founder of green energy supplier Ecotricity, and his poverty-stricken former wife Kathleen Wyatt, attracted a significant amount of media attention in 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled that despite the fact that the couple had been divorced for nearly 20 years, Ms Wyatt could proceed with a claim for financial remedy in the family court.

The facts of the case are exceptional mainly due to the huge success achieved by Mr Vince since separating from Ms Wyatt. When the couple met, and throughout their brief relationship, they lived in a caravan as new age travellers; essentially living a hand-to-mouth existence. Twenty years on, Mr Vince's wealth is estimated to be in the order of £107 million due to the outstanding success of his renewable energy company.

The reasons for the Supreme Court's decision back in March 2015 not to strike out Ms Wyatt's claim (given, as Mr Vince argued, the inordinate delay in bringing her application) were that as the couple had not sought the dismissal of each other's claims at the time of the divorce in 1992, technically Ms Wyatt's claims against Mr Vince remained open. To strike them out without giving Ms Wyatt the chance to put her case to the Court, was considered too draconian. Given the "life-long obligations which attend a marriage" the Supreme Court ruled that there can be no strict limitation periods on bringing a claim for financial relief; hence it is always open to either party to bring a claim against the other if the financial settlement has not been resolved, no matter how long it has been since the parties separated.

Since March 2015 the parties' lawyers have evidently been engaged in negotiation in order to settle the case. They finally substantially agreed the terms of a consent order settling their claims against one another, which was presented to the Court for its approval. The agreed order provided for a lump sum payment of £300,000 from Mr Vince to Ms Wyatt. Ms Wyatt would retain the monies already paid to her by Mr Vince on account of her costs incurred as a result or Mr Vince's "strike out" proceedings in the amount of £325,000.

It is important to note that the quantum of the lump sum to be paid to Ms Wyatt was agreed between the parties. The amount of the lump sum was not dictated to Mr Vince by the Court as the parties settled the matter before the case got to a final hearing.

What the parties did not agree about were two distinct matters; first relating to whether the terms of the settlement should be published or not (Mr Justice Cobb was clear that it should) and whether Mr Vince should be ordered to pay Ms Wyatt's costs in relation to a distinct aspect of the case (the Dean Summons), assessed by the Court at the amount of £1,000.

The general rule in relation to costs in divorce proceedings is that each party should be responsible for meeting his/her own legal fees. However, the Court retains the discretion to make costs orders if appropriate because of the conduct of one of the parties. In this case, although Mr Vince was ordered to pay two separate sums to Ms Wyatt in the context of his unsuccessful application to strike out her claim, in relation to the financial remedy proceedings each party was in fact responsible for his/her own costs. Ms Wyatt will now need to meet her lawyer's fees in respect of these proceedings, which are likely to be substantial, from her lump sum of £300,000 herself.

This case has attracted widespread media attention, mainly due to the extraordinary facts. However, from a legal perspective the outcome is not surprising and reaffirms the position in relation to applications of this nature, which may be brought by either party no matter how many years have passed since separation, if their claims against one another have not been dismissed.

The lump sum agreed between the parties is modest in light of the extent of Mr Vince's wealth, the limited duration of the couple's relationship and the fact that Ms Wyatt made no contribution to the success of Mr Vince's business, and rightly so.

It remains, however, a stark reminder to those divorcees who failed to wrap matters up comprehensively with their spouse at the time of the divorce. The powers of the family Court in England and Wales are extensive. However, for Mr Vince and Ms Wyatt this is likely to be the last time they will need to have had recourse to those powers.

This article first appeared in Spear's on 28 June 2016.

Boodle Hatfield specialises in high net worth divorce. Find out more here.

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