Mr Justice Holman was angry. Pauline Chai, the Miss Malaysia wife of Laura Ashley tycoon Khoo Kay Peng had filed to divorce her husband in a £500m case – yet earlier this month the businessman failed for the second time to turn up at the High Court.
The judge expressed his disgust at Dr Peng’s non-attendance and dismissed the tycoon’s excuse – that a former Malaysian judge advised him to stay away – as “complete rubbish”. Mr Justice Holman concluded Dr Peng was treating the court with contempt and “playing games”.
“This man owns a chunk of Laura Ashley, doesn’t he? He must have to return to England at some time?” he said.
The former beauty queen, 66, and the business tycoon, 74, began the bitter proceedings – which could result in Britain’s biggest divorce settlement – after their 43-year marriage broke down last year.
Dr Peng wants the case to be heard in a court in his native Malaysia, where it is believed that his wife would be entitled to less.
Initially, the Malaysian High Court backed him, relying on a law described as the “last barbaric relic of a wife’s servitude” that says a wife’s domicile must follow her husband’s. However, the Malaysian Appeal Court overturned that earlier ruling, sending the case back to the UK.
Besides having a 40 per cent stake in Laura Ashley, Dr Peng is a director of the Corus Hotel chain and runs a global investment company. Estimates have put his wealth at up to £1bn.
The collapse of the couple’s marriage has resulted in a surreal situation at Rossway Park, their estate near Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. Ms Chai lives in the main 15-bedroom home, while her husband uses the nearby five-bedroom manor house.
Each has their own Gurkha protection team who guard their respective portions of the estate, which boasts a menagerie of exotic animals and two artificial lakes built at the cost of £120,000.
The couple began legal proceedings last year, around the time another high-profile divorce of the super-rich was drawing to a close.
Scot Young, a property and telecoms tycoon, was last year jailed for six months for a “flagrant and deliberate” contempt of court when he repeatedly failed to provide financial information to his wife during the case.
As the case limped to a conclusion after seven, long years, Mr Justice Moor said that he could only find evidence that the Young had been worth £45m – and awarded his ex-wife Michelle £25m.
The Peng divorce echoes the Young case with regard to the astronomical legal bills. Referring to the “phenomenal costs” the divorce battle was racking up, Mr Justice Holman said at a hearing in March: “The legal costs which have been incurred already can only be described as eye-watering.”
Later he added: “It appears to me that this worldwide litigation is completely out of control.”
The judge also pointed out that neither Ms Chai nor Dr Peng are British citizens and that neither currently pays taxes in the UK. Together they have spent £1.6m on what Mr Justice Holman described as “preliminary skirmishes”.
A one-day hearing earlier this year for an application for further maintenance cost Ms Chai £55,000.
Both Ms Chai and Mrs Young were represented by the legal firm Vardags. Khoo is being represented by Fiona Shackleton, who acted for the Prince of Wales during his divorce from Diana, Princess of Wales. She was also hired by Sir Paul McCartney following his split from his second wife Heather Mills.
Dai Davies, a former head of royal protection at Scotland Yard, who works with Mrs Young, said the legal system was a “national disgrace”.
“In order to get justice in this country, people have to go to these hugely expensive lawyers. I thought the criminal justice system was appalling but after 45 years’ experience of both, the civil takes the biscuit 10 times over.”
A Vardags spokesperson said: “The costs are high in the biggest money cases because the very best lawyers are very expensive, they give every moment of their lives over to their cases when they need them and they deliver law-making, record-breaking, life-changing results.
“They do that for a fraction of the money which they win or save for their clients.”
Referring to the Peng case, the Vardags spokesperson added: “When you’re disputing a payout of several hundreds of millions from the financier of two of Britain’s biggest companies, Laura Ashley and Corus hotels, after 43 years of marriage and five children, it puts it into context.”