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Supreme Court Ruling is a Lesson for Divorcing Couples

View profile for Julie Bailey
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Along with the rest of the legal profession I have been closely following the divorce case involving Ecotricity millionaire Dale Vince and the mother of his son, Kathleen Wyatt.

What is particularly interesting about this case, which has gone through several hearings and was yesterday subject to a Supreme Court ruling, is that the couple were married in 1981 and divorced 11 years later in 1992.

Ms Wyatt started legal action in 2011, seeking £1.9m from her ex-husband who set up his company after the pair had split. He appealed against it on the basis that she had lodged the claim too late, and an initial ruling that she would be entitled to a hearing was subsequently thrown out. Last week, however, the Supreme Court ruled her case should go before the Family Court.

This case bears some similarity to one I dealt with last year, where I successfully pursued a claim against a husband more than 10 years after the couple divorced.

Couples need to be aware that the finalisation of the divorce, ie Decree Absolute, does not deal with or end their right to pursue a whole raft of financial claims that they have against each other as a result of being married.

Those claims can only be considered as finally settled when a court order is made dealing with them. That order may be one that simply says that all their claims are dismissed – what we call a clean break order – if there are no assets.

Many couples who have limited or no assets understandably may not want to pay for a court order which they deem unnecessary because of their financial situation. What this case highlights, however, is that if no financial order is made, the couple remain financially linked. The right to pursue a claim is lost only in limited circumstances, for example upon remarriage.

Whether or not Miss Wyatt will get anything has yet to be decided. The indication is she will certainly not get the £1.9 million she is asking for, and she may get nothing. A decision will be made once all the circumstances of the case, no doubt including what the parties’ circumstances were when they divorced and how Mr Vince’s assets have accumulated since, have been taken into consideration.
What this case confirms, though, is that no matter how dubious the claim may be, there is no ability in the Family Court to dismiss the claim on a summary basis such as exists in the Civil Courts.

Mr Vince will be compelled to provide a full account of his financial circumstances both to the court and to someone from whom he was divorced more 20 years ago. He is also having to fund his ex-wife’s legal costs – an order which is more likely to be made with the abolition of legal aid in most family cases.

Following yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, the courts could now become even more clogged up with cases involving long since divorced spouses.

The lesson to be learned here is to get legal advice on how to deal with financial claims resulting from a divorce even or especially if you deal with the actual divorce yourself. If you have been divorced but have not got a financial order, speak to a solicitor!