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Yesterday the Supreme Court handed down judgment in the case of Vince v Wyatt which, rather unusually, has captured the imagination of non-lawyers as well as lawyers and has been subject to a large amount of press coverage.
However, behind the headlines are key legal principles which are not necessarily being reported but are crucial in understanding the reasons behind the decision.
The factual background of this case is a matter of some contention and so the following summary should not be relied upon, however, as far as I have been able to establish the facts are approximately this.
Mr Vince and Ms Wyatt met and married in 1981. At this time Ms Wyatt had a two year old daughter from a previous relationship. In 1983 Mr Vince and Mrs Wyatt had a son together. Neither of them had any significant money during this marriage.
In 1984 Mr Vince moved out of the family home. There is a dispute between the parties as to whether there was any reconciliation or attempted reconciliation between them. They divorced in 1992. The only paperwork which remains is the Decree Absolute (the part which formally ends the marriage).
In the early 1990s Mr Vince developed his business Ecotricity Group Ltd which is now worth around £100 million.
In 2011, 19 years after getting divorced, Ms Wyatt issued her claim to deal with their finances.
Mr Vince sought to have Ms Wyatt’s claim struck out i.e. that the court not consider it.
The first question that tends to be asked by non-family lawyers is, how does this happen if they have divorced?
The answer is simple if counterintuitive, getting divorced does not automatically bring to an end the financial claims that the former spouses have against each other. In order to bring to an end their financial claims there needs to be a court order (either imposed by the court or agreed between the parties).
The second question that tends to be asked by non-family lawyers is, what will Ms Wyatt get?
This answer is not so simple. What it is crucial to understand is that this ruling in itself does not mean that Ms Wyatt is entitled to anything.
What the Court has done is to say that there are no automatic time limits for a spouse to bring a claim and that the Court needs to hear evidence on this case before it can decide whether Ms Wyatt’s case has any merit.
There is a chance that the case will settle without the Court ruling as to what Ms Wyatt should be awarded however, if it does proceed to a final hearing then the outcome of those proceedings will be just as interesting as the Judgement given yesterday.
What this case highlights is the need for anyone getting divorced to take legal advice to prevent unexpected consequences occurring years down the line. That may mean paying for an order to record what is agreed and bring claims to an end.
In cases where there are no assets or where the parties may have already agreed who has what and implemented that agreement what’s the point in spending money on an order? The cost/benefit analysis often fell on deaf ears as there was no tangible benefit.
We all insure our homes. We pay the premium and hope we never claim. Look at that costs estimate as an insurance premium. If not, a needs argument or one based on a contribution one party has made may be run and you will be looking for whatever medium has by then replaced a cheque book to settle! If not the costs you would have paid for the protective order will pale into insignificant when arguing the point. What the Supreme Court are clear on is that if there is an issue to be tried then that is a party’s right. Whether they succeed will be fact specific. Now that puts the cost/benefit discussion into sharper focus.