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.