Eco Warrior Dale Vince Falls At The Final Hurdle
Last week the Supreme Court found that a financial application made by a former wife could be heard over 20 years after the original divorce. The case went before the Supreme Court on 11 March, where five Supreme Court Judges ruled unanimously that Ms Kathleen Wyatt’s financial claim against her former husband, Dale Vince, should be heard before the Family Court, despite divorce proceedings being concluded over 20 years before.
Ms Wyatt first made her financial application in 2011, having divorced in 1992. Her case was originally given the green light, but Mr Vince appealed on the basis that it was an abuse of process and that after all this time, it had no real prospect of success. The Appeal Judges agreed with him and struck out Ms Wyatt’s case. This Judgement was very brave on the basis that there are no time limitations to bringing financial applications following on from divorce and the original decision was welcomed by the legal profession as it gave some guidance that delay would be taken into account.
This was further appealed by Ms Wyatt and the Judges have turned the matter on its head and agreed that Ms Wyatt’s claim should be heard. They found that Ms Wyatt had brought up the parties’ son through years of hardship and that she has a justified claim under matrimonial law. A decision has not yet been made as to what financial settlement she will receive, but this case will now return to the High Court to be determined by a Family Judge in the normal way.
Danielle Messenger, a Family Law specialist at leading regional law firm Pictons says “What makes this case unusual is not just the significant delay from the point of the divorce to filing a financial application, but also the significant change in the husband’s circumstances in the intervening years.
“The parties originally met in their early 20s as students. They married in 1981 and had a son the same year. By 1984 the parties had separated. Their divorce was finalised in 1992. They did not enter into any financial agreement, as at the time they had very little. Ms Wyatt was receiving benefits and Mr Vince was living in an old ambulance. They led a ‘New Age Travellers’ lifestyle.
“A few years after their divorce and many years after separation, Mr Vince started his wind turbine business and developed the green energy company ‘Ecotricity’. He is now estimated to be worth in the region of £110 million and has been awarded an OBE. The Court of Appeal, when finding in his favour in 2013, said he was “the most unlikely candidate for affluence”. They took a firm approach and said that people should not be harassed with financial claims years on, when there was no real prospect of success. This was the end of matter, or so it was thought. However, Ms Wyatt then launched her appeal to the case being struck out. She had a powerful legal team behind her.”
Danielle continues, “The legal backdrop to this case is that currently, there is no limitation period in respect of financial proceedings on divorce. Therefore, however absurd this may seem, a former spouse can bring a claim no matter how many years have passed…even 20! In other areas of law, such as personal injury, there are strict periods of limitation as to when a case can be brought. The original Court of Appeal decision was welcomed by many, as for the first time the question of ‘length of delay’ was given real consideration.”
Lawyers now find themselves back in the same position, where cases can be heard, even where there is significant delay.
Danielle says “Not surprisingly, this case has attracted a lot of media attention. Even if you are not a family lawyer looking at the technical law behind this, there are fundamental principles of fairness involved. On the one hand is it fair that after such a short marriage and years on you can face a financial claim? Yet on the other, should a mother who has raised a child through years of hardship not now receive some share of the fortune being built up, whilst she was trying to make ends meet?
“The lesson we should all learn is to make sure a final agreement is determined at the time of the divorce. Even if there are no assets or indeed only limited income involved, it is still important to record arrangements on a ‘clean break’ basis and make sure this becomes a binding Order of the Court. These Orders can be drafted by solicitors at a reasonable cost and give you peace of mind moving forwards. Without such an Order, parties will find themselves looking over their shoulder for years to come.”
Ms Wyatt has pitched her claim at approximately £2 million but she was told by the Supreme Court Judges that they considered this to be on the high side. Her award will now be determined by the High Court. Mr Vince will of course be arguing that the Court should take into account that assets have been generated post separation. The Court also has a statutory duty to consider the needs of the parties and it is likely Ms Wyatt will see an award that will allow her comfortable mortgage free accommodation.
Danielle concludes ”Even if she receives nothing, which is unlikely, there have been significant legal costs incurred as these proceedings have been ongoing since 2011. These costs could have been avoided if a very straightforward agreement had of been drafted at the time.
Let this be a warning to us all! “