Coroner ditches ‘cab-rank’ policy ruled unlawful
Rethink of religious burials as controversial approach is described as ‘irrational’ and ‘discriminatory’ by High Court judges
04 May, 2018 — By William McLennan
Senior coroner Mary Hassell ‘will consider every family for prioritisation’
ISLINGTON’S coroner has vowed to change her approach to religious burials and to prioritise cases on the basis of the “special needs of each individual family” after being taken to the High Court by a Jewish charity.
Senior coroner Mary Hassell’s “cab-rank” policy – which stated that no death would be prioritised because of the religion of the deceased or their family – was ruled to be unlawful by judges, who described it as “irrational” and “discriminatory” on Friday.
The case was brought after the coroner faced growing criticism by Jewish and Muslim families who had experienced delays before burying their loved ones.
Both faiths require speedy burials. 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 the judgment from Lord Justice Singh and Mrs Justice Whipple 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.”
Ms Hassell has faced calls to resign in the wake of the judgment, but in her first public statement on the case she said she was “grateful for the High Court’s clarification of the law”.
The statement said: “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 court left Ms Hassell to draft a new policy. She said she would create one only after a “consultation process with stakeholders”.
Rabbi Asher Gratt, of charity Adath Yisroel Burial Society, which brought the case, said: “This legal victory will bring immense relief for grieving families wishing to bury their loved ones with respect and dignity, preventing further unnecessary anguish at the darkest moment of their lives.”
Labour leader and Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn welcomed the High Court ruling, which would be “a huge relief to the Jewish and Muslim communities who have suffered significant and unnecessary anxiety”. He said the “cab-rank” policy had been “completely unacceptable”.
Islington Council leader Richard Watts also welcomed the ruling. “The senior coroner now needs to move urgently to draw up a plan that addresses how she will reform the coroner’s service, in order to retain our confidence as local authorities,” he added.
Others have called for Ms Hassell to quit. Labour London Assembly member Andrew Dismore said: “It is clear to me her position is untenable. She should resign forthwith, to make way for a new coroner who understands the needs of our diverse community and approaches those needs sympathetically.”