13:06, March 01 370 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-01 13:06:05
Chief coroner says officer's ‘cab rank’ approach to burials is unjustified

The chief coroner of England and Wales has said the controversial “cab rank” policy of one of his senior officers is over-rigid and unjustified ahead of a judicial review later this month.

Mary Hassell, the senior coroner for inner north London, has enraged Jews and Muslims by refusing to prioritise any death on the grounds of the religious beliefs of the deceased or their family.

Last month, a high court judge granted an application for a judicial review of Hassell’s policy, saying it raised issues of importance to Jewish and Muslim communities.

Under Jewish and Islamic law, bodies must be buried on the day of death or as soon as possible afterwards. Hassell’s area of jurisdiction covers Hackney, which has the biggest concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Europe, and Tower Hamlets, the UK’s biggest Muslim community.

Her refusal to expedite burials on religious grounds has led the Board of Deputies of British Jews to call for her to be sacked. The Muslim Council of Britain; the London mayor, Sadiq Khan; the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis; and the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, have called on the coroner to reconsider her policy.

Theresa May has also said religious requirements should be taken into account, “especially when [families have] lost a loved one and they are grieving”.

In his submission to a judicial review of the policy, scheduled for 27 and 28 March, Judge Mark Lucraft, the chief coroner, described Hassell’s conduct as “over-rigid”, “not capable of rational justification” and “not lawful”.

Hassell’s failure to respect Jewish and Muslim requirements for quick burials was in breach of the Human Rights Act, he said. “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],” he stated. “Early burial is a manifestation of religious belief.”

The submission said: “In summary, the chief coroner’s position is that a coroner may properly address a reported death with greater urgency or prioritise some task (eg the ordering of an examination) on the ground that the bereaved family have a strong and sincere desire for the body to be released quickly founded on religious belief.”

The application for a judicial review was made by the Adath Yisroel Burial Society (AYBS), which complained of unnecessary bureaucratic delays in releasing the body of an Orthodox Jewish man for burial last October.

Hassell denied their claims and alleged that her staff were bullied and intimidated by family members and the burial society.

She announced a new protocol, that “no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family”. In a letter to lawyers for AYBS, she said: “I believe the cab rank rule is the fairest way.”

In her submission ahead of the judicial review, Hassell defended her policy, saying: “My approach reflects my best attempt to consider the rights of all those who are in my jurisdiction.”