Wyatt v Vince: It’s not over

Kathleen Wyatt was recently successful in her case to take her former husband, wind farm entrepreneur Dale Vince, to court despite not lodging a claim until nearly 20 years after their divorce.

The decision in this case has been headline news since the Supreme Court handed down its judgment on 11 March because it raises so many potential concerns both for divorcees and for practitioners. Not least, by opening the door to litigation in cases settled without a final, and court approved, financial order in divorces which were concluded many years ago.

We considered the background to the case and the legal issues raised by it in December.

The legal issues

1. The extent to which a delay in bringing an application for financial remedies can support a strike out, if at all.

2. Whether claims in the Family Court should be decided in line with summary judgment rules in civil proceedings, or whether different principles apply.

In civil proceedings the court has the power to strike out a claim that has ‘no real prospect of success’ and where there is ‘no compelling reason’ for the case to go to trial. These provisions are not directly reflected in the Family Procedure Rules, which only provide that an applicant will have ‘no reasonable grounds for bringing an application’ where, for example, applications are ‘incoherent and make no sense’, ‘do not disclose any legally recognisable application’ or are ‘frivolous, scurrilous or obviously ill-founded’.

3. If applicable, whether ‘no real prospect of success’ means no real prospect of a substantive award at all, or where the substantive order is unlikely to balance against the costs and use of court time.

The decision

1. There is no limitation period in family court proceedings and, as such, delay will not provide a basis for strike out.

2. Unlike civil proceedings, there is no procedure for summary judgment applications in the family court and the strike out rules have to be considered without reference to whether or not the application has a ‘real prospect of success’.

This is because the courts have a statutory duty to give full and detailed consideration to an applicant’s case, which cannot be short-circuited via the summary judgment procedure.

Strike out in family proceedings will only be appropriate if an application is an ‘abuse of the court’s process’ or if there are ‘no reasonable grounds for bringing or defending the application’. Provided that the applicant has not remarried and that there has been no final determination on the issues, the application will be legally recognisable and should proceed.

Comment

The Supreme Court, which refers the wife’s application for financial relief back to the High Court for detailed consideration, is assiduous to outline the limitations of her underlying claim for financial relief. Nonetheless, despite the parties having been divorced for decades, the decision ensures that the litigation is likely to endure almost as long as the three year marriage.