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High Court rules coroner Mary Hassell’s religious burial policy is unlawful

"Cab rank" rule that angered Jewish and Muslim families is "discriminatory"

27 April, 2018 — By Samantha Booth, William McLennan

Mary Hassell: coroner’s policy criticised by judges 

The High Court has ruled that St Pancras Coroner Mary Hassell’s failure to prioritise religious burials is unlawful.

A judgement handed down today (Friday), said that the senior coroner’s “cab rank” rule – which states that no death will be prioritised because of the religion of the deceased or their family – was “irrational” and “discriminatory”.

The coroner had been criticised over delays by Jewish and Muslim families. Both faiths require speedy burials and family members said delays caused by the coroner’s court exacerbated their grief and impinged their religious rights.

Ms Hassell had argued that she was treating everyone equally by working on a first-come, first-served basis.

But Lord Justice Singh 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.”

While opponents of the policy celebrated outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Ms Hassell was presiding over a preliminary hearing into the death of Jamal Mahmoud, who was stabbed to death at Pentonville Prison. Three inmates were cleared of murder at Old Bailey trial last year.

A statement, issued by the coroner’s court, said Ms Hassell was “grateful for the High Court’s clarification of the law”.

It stated: “In accordance with this, her office will immediately stop dealing with families in chronological order. In future, instead of considering no family for prioritisation, the Senior Coroner will consider every family for prioritisation. In deciding the order of priority, she will take into account all relevant considerations, including the special needs of each individual family. The Senior Coroner looks forward to the Chief Coroner’s new guidance, which he has indicated he will produce soon. She will then undertake a consultation process with stakeholders before producing her own policy.”

Jeremy Corbyn, Islington North MP, said: “The High Court ruling that the ‘cab rank’ approach is unlawful, irrational and discriminatory is very welcome and will be a huge relief to the Jewish and Muslim communities who have suffered significant and unnecessary anxiety. It was completely unacceptable for the coroner to put barriers in the way of families trying to lay their loved ones to rest, and this policy must now be scrapped.”

Cllr Abdul Hai, who was vocal in his condemnation of the coroner’s approach to religious burials, said: “The court’s decision is a resounding victory for those who have campaigned for the Coroner’s Service to be brought into the 21st Century so that it meets the need of all the diverse communities and religions in a modern Britain as reflected in the London Boroughs of Camden, Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets.”

The case was brought by charity Adath Yisroel Burial Society. Rabbi Asher Gratt, of the society, 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.”

Solicitor Trevor Asserson, who represented the burial society, said: “This victory by AYBS is a victory for the cause of diversity throughout British society. Everyone interested in pluralism, and intent on defeating discrimination, in all its forms, must rejoice at the court’s firm and clear ruling.”

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