14 June 2016

Its never too late to settle - the final judgment in the 'new age traveller turned eco- millionaire’ case and its journey to the Supreme Court


You will be aware of the bizarre and unusual facts of this 'new age traveller turned eco- millionaire' case from the extensive press coverage it has received through its journey to the Supreme Court and now as the parties have reached settlement, so we will not recite them now. Richard Handel's blog following the Supreme Court judgment is worth another look, if you would like a reminder of the position at that point.

The most recent judgment in this case, just published, heralds the parties reaching a negotiated settlement of Ms Wyatt's claims. Bearing in mind these parties separated in 1984 and divorced in 1992, the Judge, Mr Justice Cobb applause for the parties reaching settlement even at a late stage of such a hard fought case, could ring rather hollow at first glance. However, from another perspective, when these parties reached heads of terms in April, this case was far from over. Lest we forget that from the date of the application in 2011 (and possibly some months before in solicitors' correspondence) until the Supreme Court judgment last year, the parties were simply arguing about whether the wife, Ms Wyatt should be allowed to pursue her application for financial relief against Mr Vince given the extensive delay in her bringing her claim (19 years). The Supreme Court decision was a resounding 'yes'. Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act requires the Court to consider all the circumstances of the case and in particular in this case, Ms Wyatt's contributions to the family, in bringing up the children. Consistent with the potentially life-long obligations which attend marriage, there is no time-limit for seeking orders for financial provision or property adjustment for the benefit of a spouse following a divorce.

So the parties were sent back to the lower courts for Ms Wyatt's full financial application to be heard. The parties must have prepared and exchanged financial disclosure and a Financial Dispute Resolution Appointment took place in October 2015. The parties did not reach agreement and the final hearing was listed for four days in July 2016, with a case management hearing scheduled for May. With those dates approaching Ms Wyatt and Mr Vince obviously decided it was time to compromise their positions. Mr Vince has been vehement in his principled approach to Ms Wyatt's claim, as far as he was concerned she should not receive a penny and Ms Wyatt's apparent approach (although we do not think that she has commented in the press herself) has been the well-publicised attempt for a £2 million pay-out. They came to settlement, deciding themselves what the right amount should be, and as documented in this judgment, it is for Mr Vince to pay Ms Wyatt £300,000 in full and final settlement of all her claims. This is in addition to the £325,000 Mr Vince has already paid in respect of Ms Wyatt's costs.

The net effect of the sums remains obscure. Although Mr Justice Cobb justified his decision for the judgment to be made public by identifying the public's right to information about the case, his decision to keep W's costs secret, means that we have no way of knowing how much Ms Wyatt actually received.

The case is bizarrely unusual. Mr Vince's extraordinary wealth means that he was more vulnerable than a person of average means to this type of claim. He may also have been more inclined to fight for what he perceived to be an injustice, bearing in mind that he could afford to do so. However, given what we know about Ms Wyatt's background, and her hand to mouth existence on state benefits, bringing up four children in Monmouth, it is very possible that even a small sum may have a fundamental effect on the quality of her life. Notwithstanding the lack of detail as to the net effect, the outcome of this case publicised this weekend with headlines like 'Ex-wife wins huge payout 30 years after couple split', does little to dissuade prospective litigants from 'having a go' and is another reminder of the importance of addressing the financial issues at the time of separation and divorce and obtaining a Court Order dismissing potential future claims between formerly married parties.

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