Last week saw the publication of the latest guidance from the Chief Coroner, HH Judge Mark Lucraft QC.

The document, entitled Guidance No. 28 – Report of death to the Coroner: Decision making and expedited decisions, comes hot on the heels of the Administrative Court decision in the AYBS case.[1]

The AYBS case

The claimants in the AYBS case successfully challenged a policy decision of the Senior Coroner for Inner North London, Ms Mary Hassell that ‘No death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family…’

Ms Hassell’s decision caused consternation within the religious communities in the parts of London over which she presides, the boroughs of Camden, Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets. The policy led to decisions being dealt with on a ‘first come first served’ basis. It was observed that the Coroner only considered expediting a decision in cases where organ donation was sought or where a homicide investigation was ongoing.

A judicial review was brought before the High Court which argued that Ms Hassel’s policy was irrational and discriminatory in that it failed to allow for the consideration of religious laws which require bodies to be buried either on the day of an individual’s death or as soon as practicable thereafter.

Lord Justice Singh and Mrs Justice Whipple upheld the application recognising that ‘it would be wrong for a Coroner to impose a rule of automatic priority for cases where there are religious reasons for seeking expedition’ identifying the importance of maintaining an entirely unfettered discretion to prioritise cases, even where ‘…the consequence of prioritising one or some of the cases may be that other cases will have to wait longer for a decision.’

The Court concluded that Ms Hassell would be required to implement a new policy incorporating the Court’s decision.

Chief Coroner’s guidance

The Chief Coroner’s guidance specifies:

  • that a coroner should be open to representations that a particular case should be treated as a matter of urgency (whether for religious or other reasons); and
  • (ii) that proper respect should be given to representations based on religious belief.

The guidance makes clear that whilst coroners are not required to give automatic priority to deaths from particular religious communities, it recognises that other deaths may require urgent handling for non-religious reasons.

The Chief Coroner stresses that there is no requirement for coroners to adopt formal written policies for dealing with requests for expedition or for dealing with deaths from faith communities. Instead it asks for coroners to be sufficiently flexible to consider expediting decisions where there is good reason to do so.