In an attempt to address her concerns that Jewish families were being prioritised over other families by her officers, the Defendant - HM Senior Coroner for Inner North London - introduced a policy which stated 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."
The claimants challenged the policy on the basis that it was in breach of Article 9 (right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and Article 14 (enjoyment of rights and freedoms without discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights, that it amounted to unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 and that the Defendant had failed to have regard to the "public sector equality duty" as required under that Act. In addition, the Chief Coroner - joined as an Interested Party - submitted that the policy was over-rigid leading to a fettering of the Defendant"s discretion and not capable of rational justification.
While claiming to maintain a "neutral stance" for the purpose of the proceedings, in her written submissions the Defendant had stated that she did not apply the policy rigidly and that it operated in ways that were different in practice. The Court confirmed that it had to consider the policy as published, which on its face excluded any prioritisation of deaths for religious reasons.
The Court ruled that the policy was unlawful and discriminatory on the grounds argued by the claimants and the interested party - although it found that the Defendant had not failed to have regard to the public sector equality duty. The policy, as formulated, imposed a blanket rule which prevented the Coroner from taking into account a relevant consideration (i.e. religion) and the individual circumstances of a particular case and thereby fettered her discretion in the exercise of her relevant powers. Moreover singling out religious beliefs for exclusion from consideration under the policy was discriminatory as, without objective and reasonable justification, it failed to treat differently people whose situations are significantly different, and it also amounted to a disproportionate interference with the right to manifest religion.
The case provides a classic example of a policy which purports to apply equally having an unequal impact on a minority and therefore being inadvertently discriminatory. Discrimination can consist of treating different cases in the same way, as well as the (more common) obverse of that situation.