Coroner row: Victory for Jewish and Muslim campaigners as judges quash Mary Hassell’s ‘cab-rank’ system

Asher Gratt and Abdul Hai outside the Royal Courts of Justice after the judgement

Asher Gratt and Abdul Hai outside the Royal Courts of Justice after the judgement - Credit: Harry Taylor

Jewish and Muslim communities in north London were celebrating this morning as judges quashed senior coroner Mary Hassell’s “cab-rank” system of dealing with deaths.

The High Court on the Strand, where two senior judges this morning quashed Mary Hassell's 'cab rank'

The High Court on the Strand, where two senior judges this morning quashed Mary Hassell's 'cab rank' system. Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA Archive - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The ruling was handed down at the High Court by Lord Justice Singh and Mrs Justice Whipple after a two-day judicial hearing last month.

In a judgment lasting about a minute, Justice Singh said: “The application has succeeded on all grounds, on a public sector duty.

“The policy is unlawful.”

In the 56-page written judgement, the judges referred to Ms Hassell’s system as “unlawful, misguided, and discriminatory”.

It also agreed the claimants were not seeking automatic priority.

“We agree with the claimants and the chief coroner that [...] there should be no rule of automatic priority for those seeking expedition on religious grounds.

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“That is not what the claimants were seeking.”

Lord Justice Singh also criticised Ms Hassell’s understanding and practise of discrimination.

“What on its face looks like a general policy that applies to everyone equally may in fact have an unequal impact on a minority,” he said. “In other words, to treat everyone the same way is not necessarily to treat them equally.

“Uniformity is not the same as equality.”

The battle between the communities has raged since November last year, when an agreement was withdrawn that allowed for the quicker release of bodies for burial, and for Jewish communities to keep watch over their dead before burial.

Both the Muslim and Jewish faiths place special importance on people being buried as soon as possible.

The policy applied to deaths in Camden, Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets, which form the Inner North London region.

In a statement after the ruling, Ms Hassell thanked the court for its “clarification of the law,”

She said: “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 senior coroner looks forward to the chief coroner’s new guidance, which he has indicated he will produce soon. She will then undertake a consultation process with stakeholders before producing her own policy.”

But there are calls for her to resign in the wake of the ruling.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews said: “If she cannot carry out this basic function of her role, she must vacate her position.”

Rabbi Asher Gratt, spokesman for Stamford Hill’s Adath Yisroel Burial Society – which brought the action against Ms Hassell – told this newspaper he was delighted.

“This is a ruling in favour of democracy and freedom,” he said, “and it is a very exciting day for the United Kingdom.

“We have been living a life of oppression, a life of discrimination, anguish and fear. Today is a day of extreme relief.”

Abdul Hai, Camden Council’s cabinet member for young people and cohesion, also welcomed the decision.

“I have been campaigning for a long time, saying the ruling is unlawful,” he said.

“You saw a clear judgement today. I call upon Ms Hassell to work with the community to introduce a flexible service for a diverse community.”

Mayor of Hackney Phil Glanville said Ms Hassell needed to rebuild the public’s confidence.

“Common sense and a sensitive approach to the needs of our diverse communities could have prevented this situation,” he said, “and I hope the coronor and her team will reflect on the decision and work with us to rebuild the confidence of local people and the communities we represent in this important service.”