Religion trumps equality: court rules against London coroner

Religion trumps equality: court rules against London coroner

Senior coroner Mary Hassell, above, who refused to fast-track Muslim and Jewish burials, has been ordered by the High Court to reverse her policy.

Under Jewish and Islamic law, bodies must be buried on the day of death or as soon as possible afterwards, but Hassell came into conflict with Muslim and Jewish groups by applying a “cab-rank” queuing policy.

Hassell’s  jurisdiction covers north London which is home to large communities of orthodox Jews and Muslims, and her policy of dealing with all deaths equally led to the High Court case.

The BBC reports that Lord Justice Singh said that Hassell’s policy was discriminatory and must be quashed.

Sitting with Mrs Justice Whipple, he said:

We hope that, with appropriate advice from others, including the chief coroner and perhaps after consultation with relevant bodies in the community, the defendant can draft a new policy which meets the needs of all concerned, including protection of the legal rights of all members of the community.

We are hopeful that a satisfactory solution can be found in this sensitive area.

Lawyers representing religious groups, who brought the legal challenge, argued Hassell’s stance ignored “deeply held beliefs” of certain religious communities.

They said Ms Hassell’s policy was unlawful and breached the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act.

Earier this year the National Secular Society joined the fray when its Chief Executive Office, Stephen Evans, above, urged the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO) to:

Robustly uphold the principle of one law for all.

The JCIO supports the Lord Chancellor, and the Lord Chief Justice in their joint responsibility for judicial discipline.

Evans said he didn’t understand why any preferential treatment should be given to religious groups.

It is not clear to me why any group of people have the right to demand to be prioritised over others. When one group demands priority, they are demanding that other groups be given less favourable treatment.

However Asher Gratt, above, a spokesman for the Adath Yisroel Burial Society said the group’s concerns went beyond religion.

The National Secular Society is right, a religious belief should not be a ‘trump card’, but coroners should be concerned with relatives needs.
Jews and Muslims require burial for their loved ones to take place immediately after death. Others may also have a need to do so. Causing them to wait adds significantly to their grief and distress.

Tolerance for those of different faiths is a fundamental component of British values and is demonstrated by most coroners across the country with flexibility and compassion.

The National Secular Society rightly expects tolerance for secularists. They should likewise extend tolerance to non-secularists.

But Evans would not back down from supporting the senior coroner:

Ms Hassell is guilty of nothing but upholding the principle of equal treatment. If a preference for an expedited coroners service can be satisfied without disadvantaging anybody else, or creating an unreasonable burden on the state, then that’s fine, but religion isn’t trump card that gives you the automatic right to preferential treatment.

Following the court’s ruling, Board of Deputies Vice President Marie van der Zyl called on Hassell:

To consider her position. She has previously said that she does not believe that using her discretion to order cases, which she needs to do to uphold the religious freedom of the diverse communities she is meant to serve, is ‘fair’. If she cannot carry out this basic function of her role, she must vacate her position.

Whatever the future for the inner north London coroners’ service, the issues raised by this case have highlighted the lack of accountability for this public service and the pressing need for reform.

Abdul Hai, above, a member of Camden Council’s ruling cabinet, described the court’s decision as:

A resounding victory for those who have campaigned for the coroner’s service to be brought into the 21st century. Over the past five years, the coroner has lost the confidence of the large sections of the communities in the four boroughs. It is essential that she takes immediate action to rekindle that confidence.

Hat tip: Remigius & T.

20 responses to “Religion trumps equality: court rules against London coroner”

  1. barriejohn says:

    Outrageous. What’s really “discriminatory” is giving the religious special treatment. Talk about getting things arse about tip!

  2. remigius says:

    The full judgment can be found here…

    Particularly worthy of note are paragraphs 89-92 ~ Irrationality.

    Basically she operates a cab-rank system giving equal priority to all cases, however she admits that some cases are given urgent priority – namely bodies released quickly for organ donation, or homicide investigation. Thus she doesn’t give all cases equal priority, therefore she should give unequal priority to religious cases on the grounds of equality. Makes sense!

  3. barriejohn says:

    Remigius: It’s yet another case of the religious getting their own way by stamping their feet and getting into a paddy, like spoilt children. If THEIR funerals are expedited more quickly, then everyone else has to wait longer, but that’s perfectly all right with them because they’re “special”.

  4. remigius says:

    No, no, no barriejohn. You’ve got it all wrong. It’s not discrimination – it’s positive action. Discrimination is unlawful whilst positive action isn’t.

    It’s explained in the above linked judgment at paragraphs 109 onward. Don’t tell me you haven’t read it!

  5. Broga says:

    “The National Secular Society rightly expects tolerance for secularists.”

    The difference is that we don’t get it.

  6. Johan says:

    This is wrong on so many levels.
    And Jews wonder why they are reviled by so many otherwise rational people. Well I say I don’t want halal meat to be available in the uk because cruelty to animals offends me.

  7. Johan says:

    Did Singh take a bribe? Or was he blackmailed? Maybe he was threatened? Or did he make a deal. You know, the pious doing favours for each other.

  8. Brian Jordan says:

    The religious are good at working round things – like eating things such as beavers that are declared not meat on a Friday, or extending their houses with bits of wire on a Saturday, or having temporary marriages on any day.
    So all they need to do is to declare the local mortuary to be a temporary grave.
    Please send any donations of thanks for that solution to the Freethinker.

  9. AgentCormac says:

    In the somewhat warmer climes of the Middle East, I have no doubt it is preferable to get corpses in the ground as fast as you possibly can. But this is cold, wet, miserable Britain. So what’s the rush? There are no practical reasons for wanting to jump the queue and have the deceased interred at breakneck speed. As ever it comes down to ‘tradition’. In other words, rigid, intractable dogma.

  10. L.Long says:

    We now have two groups that it is OK to murder them. They do not want full proper treatment of the coroner than when the body arrives then ship it right out with just ‘dude dead’ and fuck the religious aholes.
    Come to think of it the religious aholes don’t want the job done right so they can murder the dude and get his stuff, and not get caught!

  11. barriejohn says:

    [A]ll they need to do is to declare the local mortuary to be a temporary grave. (Brian Jordan)

    Brilliant idea. Not really necessary, though, as it has been stated several times that the bodies have to be buried “as soon as possible”. Just tell your god that, due to the tardiness of the coroner, burial was not possible for several days, or even a couple of weeks. Job done.

  12. L.Long says:

    Right barrie, especially for the jews! After all their gawd is SSSoooo st00pid that he thinks a piece of string defines the house, so telling gawd its the coroner’s fault should be OK!

  13. StephenJP says:

    The phrase “as soon as possible” looks pretty elastic to me. If the autopsy is needed to investigate a possible murder, for instance, the body might need to be preserved for some time. No chance of a next-day burial in that case. Even an ordinary autopsy might need more time if the cause of death is not straightforward. So why cannot the need to establish a cause of death beyond doubt be a good reason for not burying the remains immediately?

    Oh yes, I forgot: religion.

  14. Brian Jordan says:

    What about exhumations? Would it be religiously ok (albeit impractical, of course) to dig the body up again when it’s its turn in the queue? Just wondering – it would still be a temporary grave.

  15. barriejohn says:

    Brian Jordan: I don’t know whether this helps.

  16. Brian Jordan says:

    Digging deeper into the issue: what about a mausoleum so they could easily whip the coffin back to the coroner? Do the dig-it-quick religions allow soil-less graves?

  17. John says:

    One possible way to meet the demands for special treatment would be to charge the demanders extra fees.
    The money raised could be used to hire in part-time medical examiners to produce coroners reports more quickly.
    Perhaps the prospect of having to pay additional fees may quell the demands for speedy processing?
    Only time will tell.

  18. Brian Jordan says:

    Yes, but it’s religions we’re talking about. Imagine the cries of “discrimination!” if they were charged extra. And not just from the affected, I fancy.

  19. Vanity Unfair says:

    Thank you, remigius: I knew I would have to read it and you saved time searching.

    The coroner, although stating in evidence that she realised the need for flexibility in allocating scarce resources, did not write that flexibility into her departmental statement. Had she done so it would have undermined the complainant’s case.
    If it is necessary to consider religious requirements when queuing corpses then lack of religion is as important under the Equality Act as is adherence (EA 2010 c15 s10(1)). As the stated aim of the Act is “reducing socio-economic inequalities” and not favouring one set of protected characteristics over another then an atheist should receive equal consideration to a religious follower. (My interpretation)
    The judgment is summarised in paras 160-161.

    160. We can pull together the legal threads of our judgment in the following way:
    (1) A Coroner cannot lawfully exclude religious reasons for seeking expedition of decisions by that Coroner, including the Coroner’s decision whether to release a body for burial.
    (2) A Coroner is entitled to prioritise cases, for religious or other reasons, even where the consequence of prioritising one or some cases may be that other cases will have to wait longer for a decision. It is not necessary that all cases are treated in the same way or in strictly chronological sequence.
    (3) Whether to accord one case priority over another or others is for the Coroner to determine. The following further points apply:
    a) It is in principle acceptable for the Coroner to implement a policy to address the circumstances when priority will or may be given, so long as that policy is flexible and enables all relevant considerations to be taken into account.
    b) The availability of resources may be a relevant consideration in drawing up that policy or in making the decision in any individual case but limitations on resources does not justify discrimination.
    (4) It would be wrong for a Coroner to impose a rule of automatic priority for cases where there are religious reasons for seeking expedition.

    161. We would add this important rider. Any decision reached by a Coroner in an individual case, assuming that all relevant matters are taken into account, will be subject to a “margin of judgement”…. This means that the Court will not second guess the Coroner just because his or her decision is not to the liking of a particular family or others. Anyone seeking to challenge a decision of the Coroner on grounds that the Coroner has breached Convention rights will have to demonstrate that a Coroner has exceeded the margin of judgement which is afforded to him or her by the law.

    Unlike some reporters seem to say, this does not mean that religious cases will have preferential treatment. I think this is what is known as a balanced judgment. Following this, it seems that coroners can order their cases to suit resources but their decisions must be made under specified flexible circumstances.

  20. AJ says:

    So if a murderer kills a Jew or a Muslim and hides the body for a few days, in addition to any murder charge, could that murderer be sued for denying the deceased’s family their “religious right” of immediate burial? The court apparently seems to having opened up that possibility.

    But anyway, religious privilege in this country means there is a battle underway as to which religion can garner the most privilege. Not religious? Get kicked to the bottom of the pile. The Equality Act is a joke.