a coroner who operated a “cab rank” system for burials, has been told by the High Court to drop her policy and release the bodies of Jews and Muslims first.
Marie van der Zyl,
president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said Ms Hassell must “consider her position”.
Judges said the “equality protocol” policy introduced by Mary Hassell, the senior coroner for inner north London, was “discriminatory” and “incapable of rational justification”.
The protocol said that “no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family, either by the coroner’s officers or coroners.”
This meant cases were assessed and bodies released for burial by the coroner’s office in order of when they were received, taking no account of any religious requirements.
Ms Hassell introduced the policy at the end of October last year, prompting protests from Jewish and Muslim groups, whose beliefs require a funeral to take place as soon as possible after death.
She told the court that she was concerned about the “negative impact that prioritisation of one sector of the community above others has had upon the families of those other deceased”.
She also relied on guidance issued in 2014 by the Chief Coroner which said “the law does not allow the Coroner to give priority to any one person over another”.
But in a judgment released on Friday Lord Justice Singh and Mr Justice Whipple said her understanding of the law was “misguided” and the guidance was incorrect.
“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,” they said.
They ruled that the policy was unlawful and said she should introduce a new one.
Religious groups welcomed the ruling.
Rabbi Asher Gratt, speaking on behalf of the Adath Yisroel Burial Society, a charity which arranges burials for Orthodox Jewish people in north London, and which originally brought the case, said: “This legal victory will bring immense relief for grieving families to bury their loved ones with respect and dignity, preventing further unnecessary anguish at the darkest moment of their lives.”
Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said Ms Hassell must “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.”
A statement issued by Ms Hassell’s office said that she would implement a new policy following a consultation process.
The Chief Coroner is also expected to issue new guidance reflecting the ruling.
“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 statement said.