The Chief Rabbi has described the judicial review of coroner Mary Hassell’s burial protocol as a “litmus test” for how faith communities can expect to be treated by public authorities.
Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s comments came after the Chief Coroner issued a damning criticism of the burial policy of Ms Hassell, the senior coroner for Inner North London, describing it as “not lawful”.
Ms Hassell has been heavily criticised for her refusal to respect Jewish and Muslim religious requirements for quick burials.
Judge Mark Lucraft, Chief Coroner of England and Wales, described her policy — that “no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family” — as “over rigid” and “not capable of rational justification”.
The judicial review of Ms Hassell’s policy, brought by the Adath Yisroel Burial Society (AYBS), is due to be heard on March 27 and 28.
Rabbi Mirvis told the JC: “We can look upon this issue as a litmus test for the expectations that Jewish and other faith communities can have about how they are regarded by public authorities.
“Indeed, it has been heartening to see so many people, from right across the political spectrum, make clear that where possible, religious needs should be accommodated.
“I hope and expect that by the time the matter reaches judicial review, that respectful approach will prevail.”
Politicians and Jewish communal leaders reiterated their opposition to Ms Hassell’s stance following the Chief Coroner’s remarks.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader and Islington North MP, said: “I welcome the judge’s comments and they add real weight to the calls from the Jewish and Muslim communities for the coroner to respect their religious beliefs and traditions and rethink her misguided policy.”
Jonathan Arkush, Board of Deputies president, described Judge Lucraft’s criticism as “nothing short of damning”.
Mr Arkush added: “The Chief Coroner is implying, if not saying outright, that Coroner Hassell’s policy lacks good sense and is inhumane.
“She has lost the confidence of the communities she serves and the Chief Coroner’s condemnation of her is very telling indeed. It is bound to carry very great weight with the court that is shortly due to hear the legal proceedings.”
Ms Hassell, whose authority covers the London boroughs of Camden, Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets, told Jewish communal representatives last October that she operated a “cab rank rule” and would not prioritise any death because of religion.
Despite requests from the AYBS in Hackney for her to withdraw this protocol, she refused to do so, after which the burial society launched its legal action.
Following Judge Lucraft’s comments last week, lawyers for the AYBS sent a letter to Ms Hassell, urging her to withdraw the policy.
The burial society gave Ms Hassell until Wednesday to respond, but she failed to do so.
Abdul Hai, a Camden councillor and key voice in the Muslim community on burial policy, said: “It seems the Chief Coroner has vindicated my long-standing belief that a ‘cab rank rule’ queue system is an utterly unacceptable way to manage this service in a diverse area.
“All our public services must have due regard to both the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act.
“Coroners and their services must respect the diverse needs of our communities, and must not discriminate against anyone on grounds of their faith and culture.
“Fairness does not mean treating everyone the same; it means understanding the diverse needs of the community and providing a service that meets those needs.”
Andrew Dismore, London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden, said Ms Hassell was “completely isolated in her bizarre view, which takes no account of the human rights of Jewish and Muslim people”.
In her own submission to the court, Ms Hassell presented three letters “from members of the local community” supporting her position. Details of who the letters were from had been redacted.
The AYBS said “thousands of people” had signed an open letter protesting against Ms Hassell’s policy since the group posted it online in January.
The society’s letter noted the anonymity of the letters supporting Ms Hassell, and challenged her to provide unredacted copies.
Ms Hassell also stated in her submission that she “maintain[s] a wholly neutral stance in this application for judicial review”.
However, the AYBS legal team wrote: “By maintaining your unlawful decision, you are partisan and not neutral, and if your defence to our claim is unsuccessful then you will in principle become liable to pay our costs in the ordinary way.
“Your continued insistence that you will adhere to the protocol, pending the decision of the court, leaves our client little option but to take this matter to a full hearing, and to incur the costs of doing so. We do not accept that the position you are taking is one of neutrality. It is not.”
Prominent politicians, including Theresa May, the Prime Minister, and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, have commented on the ongoing controversy.