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Case commentary: Wyatt v Vince [2016] EWHC 1368 (Fam) (10 June 2016)

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Tony Roe provides an overview of Wyatt v Vince [2016] EWHC 1368 (Fam) (10 June 2016) 

So now we know what level of settlement Kathleen Wyatt got. But how did we get here?

The background

Last March, the Supreme Court unanimously allowed the wife’s appeal in Vince v Wyatt [2015] UKSC 14, [2015] 1FLR 972. Her claim, made 19 years after decree absolute in her divorce from Ecotricity founder Dale Vince, was ruled not an abuse of process and should not be struck out. It directed that the wife’s application proceed in the Family Division with a Financial Dispute Resolution (FDR) appointment. This took place before Mr Justice Moor on 28 October 2015. No settlement was reached at FDR. The final hearing was listed for 4 July with a time estimate of 4 days.

Settlement

However, a compromise agreement was reached in correspondence between solicitors in March 2016. On 20 May 2016 the parties asked Mr Justice Cobb to approve it. The hearing was in private, although the press was present, following rule 27.11 and PD27B of the Family Proceedings Rules 2010.

Two issues for determination at that hearing were whether:

  1. the terms of the settlement could be made public; and

  2. the husband should be ordered to pay the wife’s costs of the hearing on 20 May, which had been listed pursuant to a Dean summons issued by the wife, Dean v Dean [1978] Fam 161.

Mr Justice Cobb’s judgment outlines the shifting positions of the parties. Eventually, the husband conceded that the settlement could be published as long as the extent of the wife’s outstanding legal costs was also revealed.

The judge held that the parties could publish the final order, enshrining the terms of settlement. The starting point of privacy was displaced in this case - the parties’ lives and financial circumstances were in the public domain.

The husband had run the ‘rich man’s defence’. As a result, he had not disclosed any material financial evidence which might attract protection.

With its considerable professional and media attention, it was in the public interest that the outcome of this case should be revealed.

It was of particular public interest that the parties had reached a negotiated settlement short of trial after being some £2m apart. Mr Justice Cobb commented that: ‘Compromise is achievable – and I may add highly desirable – even at a late stage of such a hard-fought case’.

The consent order

The judge prohibited any disclosure of the sum which might be the wife’s approximate outstanding costs bill. It was neither fair nor just to authorise the release for publication of this without the publication of any comparable figure from the husband. When her exact outstanding costs liability is known and published we can consider the net benefit to the wife of the lump sum payment, if any at all.

The consent order would provide:

  • i) That in full and final satisfaction of all forms of financial relief (including claims as to income, capital, property adjustment, pension, and inheritance), the husband will pay the wife a lump sum of £300,000;

  • ii) That the wife will retain the husband’s payment on account of £200,000 towards her costs of the appeal to the Supreme Court, in addition to the award of £125,000 towards her costs made in December 2012.

Only on 11 April, once the terms of settlement had been agreed on 24 March, did the husband seek to introduce mutual confidentiality undertakings. The husband threatened injunctive orders in the event that she sought to publish any information about the settlement or the marriage. On 13 April, the wife said that unless the husband agreed to an order in the terms originally agreed she would issue her Dean summons. The hearing of the Dean summons was scheduled for 20 May.

On 12 May, the husband agreed to sign the consent order without the confidentiality undertakings.

Mr Justice Cobb saw no reason why the wife should not be entitled to recovery of the costs of issuing the Dean summons, as they stood at 13 May, assessed at £1,000.

The 20 May hearing itself was largely devoted to argument about publicity. Mr Justice Cobb made no order as to costs, particularly as each party had retreated from their original positions

Conclusion

In the Supreme Court, Lord Wilson said: ‘The wife asserts needs, both for a better home for herself and her family and, in the light of the severe limitations on her earning capacity, for a fund out of which to maintain herself for the rest of her life. These, with questionable forensic wisdom, she quantifies at £0.55m for the home and £1.35m for the fund, and thus at a total of £1.9m. Even at this stage one can say that, in the light of the negatives, an award approaching that size is out of the question.’

The wife got £300,000, from which she will have to pay her outstanding costs liability, once known. It remains to be seen what will be left.

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