The estranged wife of one of Malaysia’s richest men has won a first-round victory in her legal fight to have her divorce heard in London rather than Malaysia.

In what could be one of the biggest divorce cases heard in Britain, Tan Sri Khoo Kay Peng, chairman and major shareholder of the retailer Laura Ashley, and Pauline Chai, a former Miss Malaysia, have been battling over whether courts in England or Malaysia should rule on their divorce and how their reputed £400m fortune should be split.

English courts are seen as being far more generous to spouses in divorce cases, reflecting the contribution made by the homemaker as well as the breadwinner, leading to London being dubbed the divorce capital of the world.

Mr Justice Bodey ruled on Friday that the divorce could be heard in England because Ms Chai was habitually resident here, but he warned that Mr Khoo, 75, could still pursue his case in the Malaysian courts in what the judge called a “nightmare” scenario.

“Both jurisdictions could then exercise a concurrent jurisdiction over the same divorce – which is a nightmare,” Mr Justice Bodey concluded as he urged the two parties to redouble their efforts to reach a settlement.

The couple’s legal wrangling has already racked up costs of £2.3m.

Ms Chai, 67, told the court this month that her home was England and that 700 pairs of her 1,000-pair shoe collection were housed at the couple’s country estate in Hertfordshire. “All these were added up from 43 years. I accumulate them,” Ms Chai said.

Mr Justice Bodey, in reading his lengthy oral judgment to the court, noted that Mr Khoo had described his wife in his evidence as a “devoted shopper” who accompanied him on business supposedly to assist him but “in reality to go shopping”.

Mr Khoo had disputed his wife’s evidence and told the court he thought she had between 20 and 40 pairs of shoes.

The judge found Ms Chai had clear links with England, including living with her grown-up child at the Hertfordshire estate and attending a local church, while also being a member of a gardening club and the Royal Horticultural Society.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Bodey noted that the couple had homes in Malaysia, England, the US, Australia and Canada.

The case comes before the Malaysian courts next month.

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