Laura Ashley boss ordered to make settlement offer in 'titanic' divorce battle
A Laura Ashley boss has been ordered by the High Court to make his wife an offer to settle a big money divorce battle that has already run up a "jaw-dropping" £6.1m legal bill.
In what has been described as the first order of its kind, multi-millionaire Khoo Kay Peng, 77, has 21 days to comply with a family judge's direction to "lay out his stall", and possibly save further massive costs.
Dr Khoo's former beauty queen wife Pauline Chai, 69, will then have seven days to say what offer she is willing to accept to achieve a "clean break" following the collapse of their 43-year marriage.
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.
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."
Later Georgina Hamblin of Vardags, the law firm acting on behalf of the wife, described the order as "the first of its kind in the English court".
Ms Hamblin 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 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.
During the hearing, lawyers on both sides variously described the costs so far as "Himalayan, jaw-dropping, eye-watering" and agreed everything should be done to curb future expenditure as far as they were able.
The costs began to mount when Dr Khoo, a highly successful businessman based in Malaysia, 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 £30 million mansion in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, before they separated.
Ms Chai supported her claim that England was her main home by saying she had a thousand pair of shoes - 700 stored in several bedrooms, a corridor and the basement of the mansion.
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 £6 million at a stage where the case has barely reached the first fence."
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.
The pair are in dispute over the extent to which Dr Khoo built up his assets during the marriage and the extent to which his wife should benefit from them.
Dr Khoo owns properties around the world, including in Malaysia, Canada, Australia and the US as well as the UK, which will have to be investigated and valued, along with his shareholdings, if the case does not settle.
The next key stage would be a judge-led arbitration process to resolve the financial dispute. If the parties still cannot settle, the case will go to a full court hearing expected to last 15 days.
Ayesha Vardag, president of Vardags, said: "Dr Khoo, who has gone through numerous lawyers, took the expensive decision to issue rival proceedings in the Malaysian courts, where his wife would, it is believed, be entitled to a far smaller sum from him.
"He is now obliged to submit to the English court's approach to marriage as an equal partnership.
"Dr Khoo has tried to duck the powers of the English court for over three years now, racking up immense costs in the process.
"There are hundreds of millions at play here, with the husband earning millions as annual income alone.
"We have now won five out of five of the reported cases against him here, and finally we can get on with sharing out the assets. As Churchill said, this is not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning."