A LANDMARK High Court ruling has demanded that a wealthy Laura Ashley boss makes his wife an offer to settle a protracted divorce battle which has already run up a “jaw-dropping” £6.1m legal bill.
Multi-millionaire Khoo Kay Peng, 77, has been given 21 days to comply with a family judge’s direction to “lay out his stall”, and possibly save further substantial costs.
Dr Khoo’s former beauty queen wife of 43 years, Pauline Chai, 69, will then have seven days to declare what offer she is willing to accept to achieve a “clean break”.
The judge said during a case management hearing: “I am striving to exercise some control over this titanic case.”
Ms Chai contends the net worth of Dr Khoo, who is the non-executive chairman of Laura Ashley Holdings, is over £440m and he earns £5.4m a year.
The mother of the couple’s five grown-up children says she is entitled to half of his fortune. Dr Khoo disputes her claim and has put his overall net worth at some £66m.
An English court has never gone this far before.Georgina Hamblin of Vardags, the law firm acting on behalf of Pauline Chai.
The gulf between the parties means there will have to be costly investigations to establish the true extent of Dr Khoo’s wealth - unless they reach agreement - with evaluations of properties and shareholdings worldwide.
Ordering “open offers of settlement” to be made by both sides, Mr Justice Bodey said: “Otherwise the case will inevitably proceed on its expensive way to the detriment of the parties and the court’s resources.”
The judge, sitting in the High Court Family Division in London, made his order during a case management hearing in what is one of the most expensive divorces to come before English courts.
The costs began to mount when Dr Khoo, a successful Malaysia-based businessman, fought - and lost - a bid to have the divorce and subsequent cash fight decided in the “forum” of the Malaysian courts.
Costly hearings and appeals over the jurisdiction issue took place over three years in London and Malaysia.
Dr Khoo accused his ex-wife of “forum shopping” and preferring a divorce in London to get the biggest payout.
But Ms Chai, who was Miss Malaysia 1969, won her argument that London was the appropriate forum after saying the family moved to a £30m mansion in Hertfordshire before they separated.
Acknowledging the “forum fight” was largely the reason for the huge costs bill so far, Mr Justice Bodey said: “Hence the actual resolution of the finances of this couple, who have more money between them than they could spend in their lifetimes, has unfortunately taken a second seat.
“The legal costs bill is going on for £6m at a stage where the case has barely reached the first fence.”
Later, Georgina Hamblin of Vardags, the law firm acting on behalf of Ms Chai, described the order as “the first of its kind in the English court”.
She said: “It is a monumental development in family law and the strongest possible message to this husband finally to settle this case. The wife has been waiting three years for the husband finally to put his cards on the table and make her a fair offer.
“She now has only to wait another 21 days. An English court has never gone this far before and in forcing an open offer sends the strongest possible message that it will not put up with time and cost wasters.”
The couple married in December 1970 and separated on Valentine’s Day 2013. A decree nisi was pronounced in January this year and is due to be made absolute later this month.
The family lived in Malaysia until 1980, when they moved to Australia and the wife took up Australian citizenship. In 1989 they moved to Canada, where Ms Chai also obtained Canadian citizenship.
They bought their first property in England - Wentworth Park - in 1995, and then five years later acquired the 1,000-acre Rossway Park Estate at Berkhamstead, which has a 15-bedroom main house, a smaller house and other properties.
The judge was told Dr Khoo has indirect interests in a range of businesses through two holding companies in Malaysia, and has substantial holdings in Laura Ashley and Corus Hotels.