In a landmark High Court victory, Senior Coroner Mary Hassell has been defeated in her campaign to continue delaying Jewish and Muslim burials.
Ms Hassell had argued that cases would be dealt with on a first-come-first-served basis, in a break with convention which has long seen more compassionate coroners prioritise cases where a swift burial is required for religious reasons.
In what many saw as a cruel and disgusting policy which heightened the suffering of grieving families, Ms Hassell would make Jewish and Muslim families wait for weeks before releasing the corpses of their loved ones for burial, and she even prevented Jewish relatives and burial societies from observing the obligation to stand watch over a body until burial takes place.
However, Ms Hassell met her match in campaigner Marie van der Zyl, and lawyer Trevor Asserson, who worked on behalf of the Adath Yisroel Burial Society to put an end to her disgraceful practices.
Ms van der Zyl, who is a Vice President of the Board of Deputies and standing to become its President, orchestrated a fierce campaign which saw Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan, the Chief Rabbi and even the Chief Coroner attack Ms Hassell’s “cab rank” policy of treating all cases in the same way regardless of families’ needs.
After Ms Hassell defended her policy and refused to listen to reason, continuing to cause immense distress to families under her jurisdiction, the case was taken to the High Court where seasoned litigator Trevor Asserson argued that a blanket policy may appear to assure equality, but in reality an equal policy may discriminate against those who it disproportionately disadvantages.
The campaign was successful and Ms Hassell was roundly defeated.
In a 56-page judgement which has just been issued, Lord Justice Singh, sitting with Mrs Justice Whipple, found against Ms Hassell on all but one count, ordering her to immediately scrap her policy, describing it as “incapable of rational justification”.
Lord Justice Singh wrote: “The fundamental flaw in the present policy adopted by the defendant is that it fails to strike any balance at all, let alone a fair balance…It is very clear from the various materials submitted by the defendant that she was acutely aware of the impact her policy might have on certain minority religious communities within her area…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.”
Echoing the sentiments of many, Ms van der Zyl demanded the resignation of Ms Hassell, saying that “If she cannot carry out this basic function of her role, she must vacate her position.” We commend Ms van der Zyl on her leadership during what has been an appalling ordeal for Ms Hassell’s many victims.
Responding with relief, Rabbi Asher Gratt, of Adath Yisroel Burial Society, 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.” His comments were mirrored by figures in the Muslim community who had been watching the case closely.
Adding weight to Ms van der Zyl’s call for Ms Hassell to resign, Mr Asserson explained: “The court found against Hassell on every count, except for finding that she had considered the impact of her protocol on Jews and Muslims. This was to damn with faint praise, for the court found ‘she did not recognise that impact as discriminatory as a matter of law’. In other words, she knew she was causing anguish to people, but was too ignorant of the law to understand that her conduct was not only lacking in any compassion, but was also discriminatory and unlawful.”
Ms Hassell’s office said that she was “grateful for the High Court’s clarification of the law” but it has long been obvious that her policy was a disgusting abuse of power and Ms van der Zyl has Campaign Against Antisemitism’s full backing in calling for Ms Hassell to resign immediately.