England and Wales’ most senior coroner has reminded coroners of their duties surrounding deaths that require urgent consideration and has said proper respect should be given to representations based on religious belief, following a closely-watched High Court ruling.
In new guidance, Mark Lucraft QC, chief coroner for England and Wales, said the stance previously adopted by Inner North London’s chief coroner Mary Hassell was wrong in law.
In a judgment late last month the High Court said Hassell’s ‘cab rank’ policy - whereby she refused to prioritise deaths over any other on religious grounds - was unlawful.
The JR was sparked by an application from Jewish funeral organiser Adath Yisroel Burial Society (AYBS) into Hassell’s policy. It followed an incident involving the family of an Orthodox Jewish man who died in October last year. AYBS criticised ‘unnecessary bureaucratic delays’ in releasing the body for burial.
The new guidance states: ‘The chief coroner understands and is sensitive to the fact that some faith groups, particularly Jewish and Muslim, have religious and cultural wishes about treatment of a body and burial following a death. Coroners should pay appropriate respect to those wishes.’ The guidance goes on to say that this should include considering whether a particular case should be ‘treated as a matter of urgency’ based on religious reasons.
Lucraft had earlier joined the JR proceedings as an interested party. In a court document seen by the Gazette, Lucraft said he considered that the policy was not lawful, even though it may have been produced in a sincere desire to be fair to everyone in her area.
London firm Asserson represented AYBS. Trevor Asserson, the firm’s senior partner, said: ‘The guidance is extremely helpful. It makes clear that a request for prioritisation on religious grounds will always constitute a “well-founded request for expedition.”
‘In exercising their judicial functions, coroners must consider religious wishes and strike a fair balance between the rights of religious families and the interests of other families.’