Wyatt v Vince—hard cases make bad law?

Family lawyers always take a great deal of interest in the comparatively small number of family cases that reach the Supreme Court. The judgment in Wyatt v Vince [2015] UKSC 14 was handed down today with the surprise result of success for the wife. But if you remember nothing else from this judgment, remember this: ‘The circumstances of the case are highly unusual’ (per Lord Wilson, at para 2).

The legal scholar Glanville Williams has said: 'It used to be said that "hard cases make bad law" - a proposition that our less pedantic age regards as doubtful. What is certain is that cases in which the moral indignation of the judge is aroused frequently make bad law.' One wonders whether sympathy for the wife's straitened circumstances in Wyatt v Vince may have influenced this unanimous decision of the Supreme Court. If this had been a 'middle-income' case, would the door have been re-opened for the wife? (Although those cases of course don't make it to the Supreme Court, so we will probably never know.)

The wife’s appeal raised the following questions:

  • what is the extent of the jurisdiction to strike out a spouse’s application for a financial order under the Family Procedure Rules 2010, 4.4 ?
  • in the light of the factors relevant to the determination of the wife’s application did the Court of Appeal err in striking it out?
  • if the answer is yes, what case management directions would be proportionate to the unusual circumstances of the wife’s application?
  • irrespective of the answer to whether the Court of Appeal erred or not, did it err in setting aside the costs allowance order and/or in making the repayment order?

The wife faced (and continues to face) the following obstacles:

  • the marital cohabitation subsisted for scarcely more than two years
  • it broke down 31 years ago
  • the standard of living enjoyed by the parties prior to the breakdown could not have been lower
  • the husband did not begin to create his current wealth until 13 years after the breakdown; and
  • the wife made no contribution, direct or indirect, to its creation

Key aspects of the Supreme Court’s decision are:

  • the meticulous duty cast upon family courts by section 25(2) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 is inconsistent with any summary power to determine either that an ex-wife has no real prospect of successfully prosecuting her claim or that an ex-husband has no real prospect of successfully defending it
  • the wife was described as having a ‘real prospect of comparatively modest success’
  • the costs allowance order (legal services order) was restored

So, an interesting read and a judgment that is worth consideration if dealing with a case concerned with delay or indeed an application for a costs allowance/legal services order. But the facts are extreme and on a day-to-day basis most practitioners are unlikely to deal with many cases involving such a short marriage and such significant wealth.

Geraldine Morris is a solicitor and Head of LexisPSL Family.

Twitter: @GeraldineMorris

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