Judge’s plea to divorce couple

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Published: Friday 17th October 2014 by The News Editor

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A Laura Ashley boss and his estranged wife could be facing a multi-million pound divorce “nightmare” after a judge ruled their “who gets what” battle could be heard in either England or Malaysia.

Khoo Kay Peng, 75, who is non-executive chairman of Laura Ashley Holdings, and former beauty queen Pauline Chai, 67, have been embroiled in a costly and bitter legal row over where it should be heard.

Mr Justice Bodey, sitting in the Family Division of the High Court, said he was “urging the parties with all the strength I can muster” to redouble their efforts “to reach a financial accommodation” and avoid the nightmare of a legal battle in two jurisdictions.

The judge said there was “enough in the kitty”and the wife – who wants the case decided in England – and the husband – who favours Malaysia – would be hard pushed to spend it all in their own lifetimes “even if they wanted to”.

The judge had been told legal bills had already topped £2 million.

The warring couple both come from Malaysia, have five children and married in December 1970.

Dr Khoo says their home was in Malaysia.

Ms Chai – who was Miss Malaysia 1969 – says they moved their home to Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, before separating last year.

She says Dr Khoo is worth more than £400 million and says the amount she should get should run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

He says he does not have those ”sort of assets”.

Mr Justice Bodey said the reality of the case was that the estranged wife favoured the English courts because she thought she would get a better financial outcome, while her husband believed he would have a better outcome in Malaysia.

He ruled that either jurisdiction could be appropriate to try their case after establishing that Ms Chai did now have habitual residence in the UK.

The judge had been asked to consider how Ms Chai’s shoe collection fits into the picture.

Ms Chai told the court that she had around 1,000 pairs of shoes.

And she said she kept most, around 700 pairs, at their ”home” – a country house in a 1,000 acre estate in Berkhamsted.

Dr Khoo said he was ”surprised and shocked” to read that his estranged wife owned 1,000 pairs of shoes.

He guessed that she had no more than 40 pairs.

And a housekeeper, called as a witness by Dr Khoo, put the number in the Berkhamsted house at 50.

The judge said he suspected there was an “element of hyperbole” over number of shoes, but he did not think that Ms Chai had knowingly set out to deceive him.

Earlier in the year, another judge had described the amounts spent on preliminary legal ”skirmishes” as ”eye-watering”.

Mr Justice Holman said Dr Khoo owned a ”chunk” of Laura Ashley and had properties in England and Malaysia worth more than £50 million.

He said that, on any ”feasible” view, Mrs Chai would get tens of millions of pounds.

Ms Chai’s solicitor Ayesha Vardag described Mr Justice Bodey’s ruling as “a very just decision”.

She said: “Pauline Chai trusted in the laws of England, where she made a real and long-term home for herself and her children, and they did not fail her.”

Ms Chai said : “I wish to thank the judge for his astute and meticulously detailed findings.

“I have always had a great love of all things English. I am proud to be associated with the exquisite British brand Laura Ashley.

“I am proud to be one of the beneficiaries of one of the greatest gifts that the English have given to the world: the rule of law.

“This case confirms that English justice is not only alive but thriving.

“The people of England are unknowingly very fortunate indeed to have a legal system which is so utterly sound.

“I am pleased the judge recognised my connection with this great country. I am so pleased that me, my children and indeed my shoes have found a home here.”

Today’s case, in which Ms Chai vigorously and successfully denied being a “forum shopper”, is being heard as commentators suggest that England is becoming the divorce capital of the world, favoured by the super-rich.

The record for the country’s biggest divorce payment is held by late Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who reportedly paid up to £220 million to his ex-wife Galina Besharova in 2011.

Elizabeth Hicks, a partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell, suggests England has become a marital breakdown magnate simply because of money.

Following a landmark case in 2000, English courts start from the assumption that marital assets should be split 50/50, favouring the less wealthy spouse.

This contrasts with many other countries and means awards in England are several times bigger than they would be elsewhere.

Another factor is that pre-nuptial agreements, signed before marriage to protect the richer spouse’s assets, are not legally binding in England.

English judges also take into account a wider range of assets when calculating each spouse’s wealth, which also appeals to the less wealthy partner.

Ms Hicks says in Italy, for example, courts hearing the case of an entrepreneur splitting from his or her partner would not factor in the value of the business.

“You get a bespoke answer. It’s properly scrutinised,” says Richard Collins, a partner at law firm Charles Russell.

Published: Friday 17th October 2014 by The News Editor

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