Wyatt v Vince  UKSC 15
The Supreme Court handed down today the landmark judgment in Wyatt v Vince and gave now guidance in previously unfamiliar territory in financial remedy proceedings.
The parties married in 1981 and separated in 1984. The parties had one child, born in 1981, and had also treated the wife’s child from an earlier relationship, born in 1979, as a child of the family. During the relationship the parties “chose the New Age or Traveller creed and lifestyle” and had no assets of significance.
At “some stage” in the early 1990s there were both divorce and Children Act proceedings in the County Court. The only surviving document from those proceedings was the decree absolute of divorce, made on 26th October 1992. The husband claimed that the wife made an application for ancillary relief which was dismissed, but there was no evidence of this.
The wife entered into a new relationship in 1995 and had two further children by her new partner. In 1995 the husband began a wind power business which became very successful and grew into a company worth “many millions”. The husband remarried in 2006 and had a four year old son with his new wife.
The wife then applied, on 19th May 2011, for financial remedies from the husband. She sought an ‘A v A’ order for a costs allowance of £125,000 to finance her claim. The husband sought the strike out of the wife’s financial remedy application under FPR 2010 r 4.4(1). At first instance the strike out application was dismissed and the judge granted the wife’s application for a costs allowance from the husband. The husband appealed to the Court of Appeal.
Court of Appeal Proceedings
The Court of appeal allowed the husband’s appeal:
1. Per Thorpe LJ:
A. Rule 4.4 was complementary to the court’s inherent powers of case management. The court should have regard to all relevant considerations within the history and exercise case management powers. This did not just include the prejudice caused to the husband by delay, but also the use of the resources of the court. It was part of the case management function to eradicate hopeless claims.
B. The facts of this case were extreme. The wife had lived an impecunious lifestyle throughout her life with both of the men with whom she had entered into family life. Under those circumstances she could not look to the husband to be her insurer against life’s eventualities.
C. Although it fell away as a result of the allowing of the appeal on strike out, Thorpe LJ would also have allowed the appeal against the ‘A v A’ order. This was not a conventional case of a wife faced with an affluent husband with whom she could not gain equality of arms. The judge should have addressed all the factors which bore on his discretionary decision. In this case, given how fraught with difficulty the wife’s case was, the husband would have faced the prospect of having her application dismissed in circumstances where he would both be unable to recover his own costs from her, but also having paid her costs.
2. Per Jackson LJ, agreeing with Thorpe LJ:
A. There are close similarities between the wording of the FPR and the CPR in relation to strike out applications. The interpretation of
B. CPR r 24.2 provides for the court to give summary judgment when a claim (or defence) has no real prospect of success (or successfully defending the claim). It was “odd” that there is no provision for applications for summary judgment in the FPRs. In civil proceedings it is common for an application for the striking out of a statement of case to be accompanied by an application for summary judgment. However, the lack of provision for summary judgment did not mean that the court had to allow a claim with no prospects of success to proceed to trial. The wording of FPR r 4.4(1) (b) is identical to CPR r 3.4(2) and should be interpreted and operated in essentially the same way.
C. Although there was no limitation period in respect of applications for financial remedies following divorce, the court should not allow either party to a former marriage to be harassed by claims for financial relief which are both issued many years after the divorce and have no real prospect of success. This was a classic example of such a case.
D. Parties should not, however, make applications to strike out merely on the grounds that the other side’s case was weak or unlikely to succeed. Applications for strike out under FPR r 4.4(1) (b) would only succeed in rare and exceptional cases.
The Supreme Court’s decision: Ms. Wyatt’s application succeeds
The court examined the jurisdiction under Rule 4.4 of the family rules to strike out an ex-spouse’s application for a financial order and found inter alia that when an ex-spouse applies for a financial order, the court has a duty under section 25(1) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 (“the 1973 Act”) to determine that application having regard to all the circumstances, including the eight matters set out in subsection (2); this assessment is not apt for summary determination. The Court of Appeal was therefore wrong to insinuate a test analogous to summary judgment into the family rules. Both limbs of Rule 4.4 should be construed without reference to real prospects of success. An application has “no reasonable grounds” for the purposes of Rule 4.4(1) (a) only if it is not legally recognisable, e.g. because there has already been a final determination of the proceedings or because the applicant has remarried. Neither should an application be viewed as an “abuse of process” falling within Rule 4.4(1) (b) solely on the basis that it has no real prospect of success]. Ms Wyatt’s application is legally recognisable and is not an abuse of process and her appeal against the strike-out therefore succeeds.
Paradigm Family Law Managing Partner Frank Arndt says:
“A strike-out procedure was relatively unfamiliar territory in financial remedy proceedings, but used in a 2002 Case. It was restricted to situation where the pleading was scandalous, frivolous or vexatious or may prejudice embarrass or delay the fair trial of action or was an abuse of process. An abuse of process is not only the concern to the parties but to the Court. With the restricted Court time available, the Court has within its case management powers to ensure that judicial and Court resources are appropriately and proportionately used in accordance with the requirement of justice. Where the claimant’s action is of such limited value that the game is not worth the candle and the costs out of proportion to the benefit, a strike-out is the only option. A refusal to grant relief from a debarring sanction will not contravene ECHR Art 6 (1) provided that it is proportionate and for a legitimate purpose.”