The High Court has ruled that the controversial burial policy of a London coroner is “unlawful, irrational" and "discriminatory”.
In its ruling this morning, the court struck down the “cab rank rule” policy of Mary Hassell, senior coroner for Inner North London, which had been that “no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family”.
In a 56-page judgment, Lord Justice Singh, sitting with Mrs Justice Whipple, described the policy as “incapable of rational justification.
“The fundamental flaw in the present policy adopted by the defendant is that it fails to strike any balance at all, let alone a fair balance,” Lord Justice Singh wrote.
“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.”
Ms Hassell, whose jurisdiction covers the boroughs of Camden, Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets, informed Stamford Hill’s Adath Yisroel Burial Society of her burial policy last October. She refused to retract it, despite a number of requests for her to do so. Religious Jews and Muslims are required to bury the deceased as soon as possible.
Trevor Asserson, founder of the Asserson law firm, which acted for the AYBS, said “the court found against Hassell on every count, except for finding that she had considered the impact of her protocol on Jews and Muslims.
“This was to damn with faint praise, for the court found 'she did not recognise that impact as discriminatory as a matter of law'. In other words, she 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.
“This victory by AYBS is a victory for the cause of diversity throughout British society,” Mr Asserson added.
“Everyone interested in pluralism, and intent on defeating discrimination, in all its forms, must rejoice at the court’s firm and clear ruling.”
Rabbi Asher Gratt of the burial 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.
“Having twice been found guilty of acting unlawfully, it’s high time for Hassell to move on and make way for a compassionate coronial service.”
In 2015, Ms Hassell lost another judicial review over the issue of invasive autopsies.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said the judgment "holds within it an essential message about British values. When we talk about freedom and respect for people of all backgrounds, when we say that Britain values diversity and equality – this is what we mean. As Lord Justice Singh says in his judgment, “uniformity is not the same thing as equality” – indeed our capacity for treasuring difference is what makes this country great. I commend all those who have tirelessly campaigned for a resolution to this matter and in particular the Adath Yisroel Burial Society.”
For the Board of Deputies, vice-president Marie van der Zyl said the senior coroner “must now consider her position. If she cannot carry out this basic function of her role, she must vacate her position.”
Commenting on the decision, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said it was “right and proper” for coroners to respect the religious sensitivities of London residents.
He tweeted: “Crucial that a plan is now drawn up as soon as possible on how this will be implemented in the Inner North London area.”
In January, the Mayor lent his support to the Jewish and Muslim communities under Ms Hassell’s jurisdiction, saying he “could not explain” her burial policy.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn 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."
The decision was also welcomed by Camden Councillor Abdul Hai, who as a Muslim community representative has been working closely with the Jewish community on the issue.
He said it was "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”.
Rabbi Avraham Pinter, a senior figure within the Hackney Charedi community, spoke of its “huge relief” at the verdict.
“I have a daughter who lives in Haringey [outside Ms Hassell’s jurisdiction]. I always told my children that if I became seriously ill, I want to move to her house so I wouldn’t die within her area.
“People feel they can now die in peace. We are glad the judge ruled in line with what other coroners do. Coroners should have respect and empathy for all communities.”
Rabbi Pinter, the principal of the Yesodey Hatorah School, also paid tribute to the work of Ms van der Zyl in the matter. “It really shows how different sections of the community can work in a joined-up way.”
A spokesperson for the Chief Coroner of England and Wales, Judge Mark Lucraft (who was added to the case as a interested party), said he would "need to consider the judgment carefully. The High Court has invited the Chief Coroner to issue new guidance, which he will do in due course.”