The UK’s Chief Coroner has said a senior London coroner’s decision not to prioritise the release of some bodies for religious reasons could be unlawful.
The dramatic intervention represents the latest twist in what Jewish community representatives have dubbed ‘the coroner crisis,’ when Mark Lucraft QC disagreed with Senior Inner London Coroner Mary Hassell on Thursday.
Lucraft’s judgement will delight Jewish and Muslim representatives who have complained about Hassell’s “cab-rank rule” when it comes to releasing bodies, given the importance in both religions of speedy burial.
That ‘rule’ has been challenged in the courts by the Adath Yisrael Burial Society (AYBS) and Trevor Asserson, a lawyer. They had brought a judicial review application alleging that Hassell’s decision is unlawful, and the Chief Coroner was added as a party to the action at the instigation of the Court.
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Recording his thoughts, the Chief Coroner has now said Hassell’s conduct is “over-rigid,” that she is “not capable of rational justification” and that her policy was “unlawful”.
He felt the protocol was discriminatory and in breach of the Human Rights Act, stating that “the interest of a Jewish or Muslim person in having a close relative buried on the day of death or as soon as possible thereafter qualifies as a right protected by Article 9 [Human Rights Act]… Early burial is a manifestation of religious belief”.
Hassell said her approach “reflects my best attempt to consider the rights of all those who are in my jurisdiction,” and presented three statements of support.
Asserson said the support of the Chief Coroner was “of huge importance,” adding: “The Chief Coroner is a senior Judge, and probably the most authoritative voice on Coronial law in the UK. His support of this claim further isolates Mary Hassell who is made to appear legally illiterate.”
Asher Gratt, speaking on behalf of the AYBS, said: “We hope this will lead to end the added sufferings and anguish of grieving relatives when facing bureaucracy and inflexible procedures that prevents the prompt burial of their loved ones.”
Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn told Jewish News: “I welcome the judge’s comments and they add real weight to the calls from the Jewish and Muslim communities for the coroner to respect their religious beliefs and traditions and rethink her misguided policy.”
President of the Board of Deputies Jonathan Arkush said: “The Chief Coroner’s submission to the court is nothing short of damning to Coroner Mary Hassell. He considers that her so-called ‘cab-rank’ principle ’over-rigid,’ ‘irrational’ and ‘unlawful’. He advocates a different approach that recognises a family’s strong and sincere desire for a body to be released quickly, and says this is no more and no less than good sense and good humanity.
“The Chief Coroner is therefore implying, if not saying outright, that Coroner Hassell’s policy lacks good sense and is inhumane.
“The Chief Coroner has given clear support to the legal proceedings brought by the AYBS against Coroner Hassell and I welcome it. When families come from a Christian, Jewish, Muslim or other background and seek the release of a loved one’s body for burial as soon as reasonably possible, they are entitled to be treated with common decency and humanity in their hour of distress. Coroner Hassell’s approach fails badly on both counts. She has lost the confidence of the communities she serves and the Chief Coroner’s condemnation of her is very telling indeed. It is bound to carry very great weight with the court that is shortly due to hear the legal proceedings.”
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