The Court of Appeal has recently given judgment in Vince -v- Wyatt (2013). In this case the parties had married in 1981 and separated in 1984 when they were in their early twenties. Their divorce was finalised in 1992 when they were both in receipt of state benefits and had no assets. Neither had retained any documentation from their divorce proceedings and it was not possible to establish whether any financial orders – and in particular a clean break – had been made at the time of the divorce.
In 1996 Mr Vince established a green energy company which over the years became incredibly successful and is now estimated to be worth £90 million. Ms Wyatt applied in 2011 for a capital order to house herself, together with capitalised maintenance for life from Mr Vince. Mr Vince asked the court to strike out the claim on the basis that it was an abuse of the court’s powers and that Ms Wyatt had no reasonable grounds for applying. Initially the court rejected Mr Vince’s request to strike out Ms Wyatt’s claim and also ordered him to pay Ms Wyatt’s costs of pursuing the case. Mr Vince appealed.
The Court of Appeal unanimously allowed the appeal and struck out Ms Wyatt’s claim. At the time when she should have made her claim – i.e. at the time of the divorce – neither party had any assets. Mr Vince’s wealth was only generated a significant time after the divorce. Giving judgment Lord Justice Jackson stated that Mr Vince should not be considered to be Ms Wyatt’s “insurer against life’s eventualities”. The Court of Appeal also agreed that Mr Vince should not be liable for Ms Wyatt’s legal costs, regardless of how wealthy he may be.
Although Mr Vince succeeded in his appeal both parties incurred significant legal costs to reach that outcome. This case is an extreme example of an application with little merit of succeeding. However it does emphasise the need for a clear and accurate financial order at the time of divorce proceedings. A properly drafted order will record the way in which any marital assets are to be divided between the parties. Importantly it will also provide certainty, dealing with any potential future claims and where appropriate ensuring that there is a clean break – meaning that parties cannot make a claim in the event of a change in circumstances in the future.