A cat-loving psychotherapist went to court in an extraordinary four-year fight costing £20,000 in lawyers' bills to ban her neighbour from feeding her pet.
Jackie Hall and husband John enlisted a top QC to sue landscape gardener Nicola Lesbirel in an unprecedented legal first after accusing her of adopting their Maine Coon, Ozzy, as her own and even putting a collar displaying her phone number on him.
But Ms Lesbirel – who worked with Sir Terence Conran and won gold at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2004 – said she did nothing wrong in giving food to the free-roaming cat who, like the title character of the 'Six Dinner Sid' children's books, "fed in a number of premises" in their affluent west London street.
She argued that Ozzy was simply a "sentient being" with a mind of his own and ate where he liked.
The four-year-long row erupted after psychotherapist Jackie and company director John went supersleuth, attaching a GPS collar and discovering that their often absent feline friend was regularly in the area around Ms Lesbirel's home.
They claimed she had fed and groomed Ozzy and treated him as her own, resulting in him spending long periods away from their home in Hammersmith Grove, upsetting both them and their children.
They claimed Ms Lesbirel, 57, had repeatedly removed Ozzy's collar and replaced it with one bearing her phone number and the words: "My home."
The couple were so distressed that they enlisted a top QC, Tom Weisselberg, and sued the gardener for an injunction, banning her from taking in or feeding Ozzy – referred to in court papers as "a chattel worth at least £500."
But Ms Lesbirel denied doing anything wrong, claiming that Ozzy had a mind of his own and, having followed another of the Halls' cats into her garden, had simply made it "his territory".
The case was due to be heard in a trial at Central London County Court, but after negotiations the neighbours settled after Ms Lesbirel made a series of legally-binding promises to restrict her interaction with Ozzy.
The dispute had run up lawyers' bills of over £20,000 by the time the case was settled.
According to claim documents filed at the court, the cat-loving Halls bought the Maine Coon – one of the world's biggest feline species – in 2014.
But from at least March of the following year, Ms Lesbirel – who lives a few doors down the road from their grand home in Brackenbury Village – had regularly interfered with the cat, claimed Mr Weisselberg.
He was frequently away from their home for long periods, but when he returned appeared to have been "fed, groomed and cared for by someone else," he said.
Their GPS investigation in November 2015 led them to their neighbour, sparking the four-year battle which has only now concluded at court.
The Halls claimed that Ms Lesbirel spent years "grooming" Ozzy into coming to her, feeding him and keeping him at her home.
The QC said the couple had first found Ozzy's collar removed in August 2018 and replaced with another with the words "my home" and Ms Lesbirel's phone number.
The Halls removed it and replaced it with their own personalised collar, but between October 26 and December 7 found Ozzy wearing one of Ms Lesbirel's collars on eight occasions, he said.
The row led to a heated exchange by letter, text and email – detailed in court papers – during which Ms Lesbirel claimed that Ozzy had been a "fixture" in her home for most of his life.
"He is very loved and well cared for and he is very attached to his territory, and to me," she wrote in a letter. "Surely leaving him where he is determined to be and where you can be reassured he is settled and happy and healthy is the best thing for everyone involved, both feline and human."
Mrs Hall responded by writing: "He is not your cat and we are not just giving him over to you."
In an email, she added: "What was something that we have tolerated over the years – because we are a nice family and didn't want to cause hurt – has now become intolerable and you have just gone too far.
"I understand that you feel it is impossible for you to close your door to Ozzy now, as you have spent years grooming him to come to you, but that is the only decent course of action.
"The question we all have asked ourselves year after year: 'Why doesn't Nicola just get her own cat? Why can't she just leave ours alone?'"
In response, Ms Lesbirel claimed she had been wrongly painted as the "mad neighbour caught up in feline fantasises" and described Mrs Hall's claims as "wildly inaccurate and spiteful".
Mr Weisselberg accused Ms Lesbirel of questioning or denying the Halls' title to Ozzy, wrongfully taking and receiving him, and wrongfully retaining him, denying them access.
Outlining the impact of the row on the family, he added: "They have had to purchase new collars for the cat. They have been very upset and distressed.
"They have been deprived of the enjoyment of the cat for significant periods of time, including when their children are at home, and for a significant proportion of the life of the cat."
He asked the court for an injunction banning Ms Lesbirel from letting Ozzy into her house, feeding him, putting him in a basket or box or "interfering" with his collar.
In her defence to the claim, Ms Lesbirel's barrister, Richard Bottomley, said she did not intend to deprive the Halls of the cat and that her behaviour in feeding and caring for him was acceptable.
She had not treated Ozzy as her own, he claimed, but had instead felt "duty-bound" to care for him because his owner was "unwilling or unable to do so".
"Such care and assistance included placing collars on the cat and taking the cat to the vet," he said in her written defence to her neighbours' claim.
"She has never deprived their rights to the cat. It is averred that the cat is a sentient being and as such goes where he pleases and such decision is wholly outside of Ms Lesbirel's control."
Ozzy had first appeared in her garden after following another of the Halls' cats, Coco, claimed the barrister.
"Over the next few months, the cat established the garden as his territory by seeing off any other cats, including Coco, whenever they appeared," he continued.
He said Ms Lesbirel had twice looked after Ozzy when he appeared ill in her garden, while he often slept under the eaves of her roof or under her shed.
During the spring and summer of 2015, Ozzy would come and go as he pleased through her open windows, Mr Bottomley continued.
Ms Lesbirel admitted putting collars on Ozzy, but denied they were engraved and said the Halls had not contacted her to object, he said.
And when the Halls' son knocked on her door to challenge her about her involvement with Ozzy, she had told him the cat was "free to go as he pleases".
"It is averred that the cat feeds in a number of premises," said Mr Bottomley. "It is averred that Ms Lesbirel does not treat the cat as if he is her own."
The dispute reached court for a hearing in October, but was adjourned to allow negotiations, which resulted in a settlement of the case just before Christmas.
According to the court order which has now been made public, Ms Lesbirel has promised that she will not feed Ozzy cat food, tinned fish or meat, and will not remove his collar.
She also promised not to put him in a box or basket or to let him into her home or to invite him in, unless he is making a disturbance at the front of her flat, in which case she can carry him through and put him out back.
Feline legal experts for the Cats Protection league said: "We have never come across a case in which the courts have granted an injunction to prevent someone from feeding their neighbours' cats.
"We have been contacted from time to time by people who want to know what to do when neighbours feed their cats and, in effect, encourage the cats to relocate.
"In practice, most people who feed other peoples' cats do so in the well-meaning and honest belief that the cats are strays, have no owners and are hungry.
"From a legal point of view, cats are regarded as property and an offence would be committed under the Theft Act 1968 if the 'feeder' dishonestly appropriated the cat with the intention of permanently depriving the owners of their cat."
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