07:46, April 27 313 0 theguardian.com

2018-04-27 07:46:03
London coroner's 'cab rank' policy ruled discriminatory

A senior coroner has been ordered to abandon a “cab rank” policy on hearings after a high court judge ruled it was unlawful and discriminatory as it refused to take account of religious beliefs.

Mary Hassell, the coroner for inner north London, was told to draft a new policy meeting the needs of all members of the community.

Hassell introduced a blanket rule this year that no death would be given priority on the grounds of faith. The policy was challenged by Jewish and Muslim groups and was criticised by Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and the London mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Under Jewish and Islamic law, bodies must be buried on the day of death or as soon as possible afterwards. Faith and community organisations said Hassell’s policy had led to unnecessary delays and caused deep distress to relatives.

Hassell’s area of jurisdiction covers Hackney, which has the biggest concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Europe, and Tower Hamlets, which has the UK’s biggest Muslim community.

Two senior high court judges ruled that the policy was unlawful and in breach of the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act.

The 56-page judgment by Lord Justice Singh, sitting with Mrs Justice Whipple, described the coroner’s policy as inflexible, misguides and “incapable of rational justification”.

“It is very clear from the various materials submitted by the defendant that she was acutely aware of the impact her policy might have on certain minority religious communities within her area,” the judgment said.

“What on its face looks like a general policy which applies to everyone equally may in fact have an unequal impact on a minority. In other words, to treat everyone in the same way is not necessarily to treat them equally. Uniformity is not the same thing as equality.”

The coroner’s refusal to expedite burials on religious grounds had led the Board of Deputies of British Jews to call for her to be sacked. The Muslim Council of Britain and the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, had also called on the coroner to reconsider her policy.

Trevor Asserson, of the law firm Asserson, which sought a judicial review of the policy on behalf of the Adath Yisroel Burial Society (AYBS), said the ruling was “a victory for the cause of diversity throughout British society”.

He said the judgment suggested Hassell “knew she was causing anguish to people but was too ignorant of the law to understand that her conduct was not only lacking in any compassion but was also discriminatory and unlawful”.

Rabbi Asher Gratt, of the AYBS, said: “This legal victory will bring immense relief for grieving families to bury their loved ones with respect and dignity, preventing further unnecessary anguish at the darkest moment of their lives.”

Speaking on behalf of the Board of Deputies, Marie van der Zyl said Hassell should now consider her position. “If she cannot carry out this basic function of her role, she must vacate her position,” she said.

The introduction of the cab rank policy followed a dispute between Hassell and the AYBS along with the family of an Orthodox Jewish man who died last October. The AYBS said there were unnecessary bureaucratic delays in releasing his body for burial, and the delays caused “anguish and trauma” for the family.

The coroner denied their claims and alleged that her staff had been bullied and intimidated by family members and the burial society.

Asserson cited article 9 of the European convention on human rights, which guarantees the right to practise one’s religion or beliefs subject only to legal limitations to protect public safety and order, and the rights and freedoms of others.