London coroner ordered to change her ‘unlawful’ cab rank policy
High Court orders coroner to ditch ‘cab rank’ system for burials and give Muslims and Jews priority because of their ‘deeply held beliefs’
- Mary Hassell, senior coroner for inner north London, established the policy
- Religious groups brought legal challenge under Human Rights Act and Equality Act
- Policy stipulates that no death will be prioritised on the religion of the deceased
High Court judges have ordered a coroner to change her ‘unlawful’ cab-rank queuing system for handling burials.
Religious groups brought a legal challenge against a policy established by Mary Hassell, the senior coroner for inner north London, which means deaths in her jurisdiction are dealt with on a first-come, first-served basis.
The policy stipulates that no death will be prioritised based on the religion of the deceased or their family by either the coroner or her officers.
But Lord Justice Singh said the policy was discriminatory and must be quashed.
Sitting with Mrs Justice Whipple, he said: ‘We hope that, with appropriate advice from others, including the chief coroner and perhaps after consultation with relevant bodies in the community, the defendant can draft a new policy which meets the needs of all concerned, including protection of the legal rights of all members of the community.
‘With appropriate good will on all sides and what Mr Hough at the hearing called “applied common sense”, we are hopeful that a satisfactory solution can be found in this sensitive area.’
Mary Hassell, pictured, established a policy which means deaths in her jurisdiction are dealt with on a first-come, first-served basis
The judge added: ‘The fundamental difficulty with the defendant’s policy is that it does not strike a fair balance between the rights concerned at all.
‘Rather, as a matter of rigid policy, it requires the coroner and her officers to leave out of account altogether the requirements of Jewish and Muslim people in relation to early consideration of and early release of bodies of their loved ones.’
Lawyers argued at a hearing last month that it ignores ‘deeply held beliefs’ of certain religious communities which require their dead to be buried as soon as possible.
They said Ms Hassell’s stance is unlawful and breaches the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act.
Mitzi Kalinsky, the senior sexton at the Jewish Joint Burial society, praised the ruling.
She said: ‘We’re really pleased because we have had problems, we have had two funerals that have been held up by Mary Hassell. We’re extremely pleased, a lot of the burial societies, including us, helped to fund the judicial review.
‘We’re all affected, regardless of whether you’re orthodox, even where you’re not so religious it’s still traditional. It causes enormous distress when you don’t get a funeral quickly.
‘The thing was it’s only her jurisdiction, other coroners are very respectful of traditions, they give it priority, they know for us burying quickly is important.
‘We’ve never had this with anyone else, it seems she was out of step with her colleagues as well.’
The court previously heard Ms Hassell’s jurisdiction covers the boroughs of Camden, Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, which between them have ‘sizeable’ Jewish and Muslim minority populations.
Sam Grodzinski QC told the court there was evidence from Jewish and Muslim leaders that the policy has caused ‘widespread distress’ among faith communities.
The barrister, representing the Adath Yisroel Burial Society, told the court his case was not that religious groups must come first, but that religious belief must be ‘conscientiously taken into account’ by a coroner.
He added: ‘If the coroner’s officer knows that the family has a genuine religious need to hold the funeral of their loved one either later that day or the next day, this religious need cannot lawfully be excluded from the defendant’s consideration.
‘And yet, the effect of the policy is that the Jewish or Muslim family must simply take their place in the cab rank queue – regardless of whether others require any urgent decision from the coroner.’
Since first outlining the policy, Ms Hassell has said it is ‘flexible’ and does take into account the wishes of families.
Lawyers representing the Chief Coroner of England and Wales, Judge Mark Lucraft QC, said the policy set out by Ms Hassell was ‘over-rigid’ and ‘not lawful’.
They said there was ‘no criticism’ of Ms Hassell intended, as her decision may have been motivated by a ‘genuine intention’ to be fair to everyone in her area.
However, they argued it was wrong to ‘rule out’ speeding up the process in relation to deaths where family members had asked for a loved one’s body to be released quickly by reason of their faith.
High Court judges have ordered the senior coroner for inner north London to change her ‘unlawful’ cab-rank queuing system for handling burials
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