The Chief Coroner, His Honour Judge Mark Lucraft QC, has come down against the decision of his fellow Senior Coroner, Mary Hassell to prioritise no death over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family.
On 30 October 2017, Hassell had issued what she referred to as “a protocol” in which she declared “No death will be prioritised over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family”.
Because of this, a number of burials were delayed resulting in families from the Jewish and Muslim faith to complain about Hassell and call for her removal.
According to Jewish and Muslim burial rites, bodies of the deceased must be buried as soon after death as possible, preferably on the same day.
The Adath Yisrail Burial Society (AYBS) is bringing a judicial review application alleging that this decision is unlawful. The Chief Coroner was added as a party to the action at the instigation of the Court.
The Chief Coroner referred to her conduct as “over rigid,” “not capable of rational justification” and “unlawful”.
He went on to find Mary Hassell’s protocol as ‘discriminatory’ and in breach of the Human Rights Act, stating: “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.”
He explained that he strives to lead coroners to act in a manner which is “humane and pragmatic”. He also said that cases should be prioritised where urgent. “A coroner faced with a set of files to consider may try to deal first with those which can be handled quickly or those which are particularly urgent.” The Chief Coroner brought forward three statements from other senior coroners in support of his stance.
In a document, Mary Hassell’s detailed grounds and evidence aimed to defend her position and argued that applying what she refers to as a ‘cab rank rule’ as appropriate.
Hassell said: “My approach reflects my best attempt to consider the rights of all those who are in my jurisdiction.” She also brought three statements in support, in the form of three short, anonymous letters.
Trevor Asserson, founder of law firm, Asserson representing AYBS, said: “Evidence in the form of short anonymous letters will have little if any weight.
“The support of the Chief Coroner is of huge importance. 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.”
The claim has received support from Theresa May in PMQs; Jeremy Corbyn; Sadiq Kahn; a large number of MPs and a number of Muslim and Jewish leaders. Dr Philip Lee, under – secretary of State for Justice, has invited the Claimant to meet with him later this month to discuss the matter.
The case has been rushed through the Courts by the Judiciary who have expressly said that they recognise its importance. The case is due to be heard before a Divisional Court on 27 and 28 March 2018.