Mary Hassell in High Court clash with religious groups over burials

Coroner Mary Hassell. Picture: ARCHANT

Coroner Mary Hassell. Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

A coroner is at the High Court facing a legal challenge against her decision to adopt a “cab rank” queuing system for burials.

St Pancras Coroner's Court (Picture: Nathalie Raffray)

St Pancras Coroner's Court (Picture: Nathalie Raffray) - Credit: Archant

Mary Hassell – the senior coroner for inner north London, which covers Tower Hamlets – brought in a policy so that deaths in the boroughs she covers are dealt with on a first-come, first-served basis.

The policy, heavily criticised by religious groups, says no death will be given priority based on the religion of the deceased or their family by either the coroner or her officers.

The policy is being challenged at the High Court in London by faith groups who say it ignores “deeply held beliefs” which require their dead be buried as soon as possible.

They argue Ms Hassell’s stance is unlawful and breaches the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act.

St Pancras Coroner's Court Photo by: Stephen Evans

St Pancras Coroner's Court Photo by: Stephen Evans - Credit: Stephen Evans

Lawyers told the court today that Ms Hassell oversees the boroughs of Camden, Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, which between them have “sizeable” Jewish and Muslim minority populations.

Sam Grodzinski QC told the court there was evidence from Jewish and Muslim leaders that the policy has caused “widespread distress” among faith communities.

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The barrister, representing the Adath Yisroel Burial Society, told the court his case was not that religious groups must come first, but that religious belief must be “taken into account” by a coroner.

He added: “If the coroner’s officer knows a family has a genuine religious need to hold the funeral of a loved one either later that day or the next day, this religious need cannot lawfully be excluded from consideration.

“And yet, the effect of the policy is that the Jewish or Muslim family must simply take their place in the cab rank queue - regardless of whether others require any urgent decision from the coroner.”

The court heard that, since first outlining it, Ms Hassell has said the policy is “flexible” and does take into account families’ wishes.

In a written statement, Ms Hassell said: “My team and I do, in every case, try to help and we tailor that help.

“We respond to particular circumstances and wishes and we accommodate every family when we are able – provided that doesn’t disadvantage other families – we assist where we can.”

However, Mr Grodzinski argued Ms Hassell should have “spelled” this out in the policy itself.

He added: “On its face, the policy expressly precludes the kind of proportionate, flexible approach the defendant now says she intended.

“In our respectful submission, it was especially important for any intended flexibility to be expressly stated – not only so the coroner’s officers could understand, but also so that those persons affected by the policy would understand where they stood,” he added.

The hearing continues before Lord Justice Singh and Mrs Justice Whipple.