The Tetra Pak Heir and the Laws of Burial

At Isleworth Crown Court on 1st August 2012, HHJ Richard McGregor-Johnson passed sentence on Hans Kristian Rausing for preventing the lawful and decent burial of his wife, Eva Rausing.  The common law offence to which he had pleaded guilty was one of those categorized as an offence against public morality and policy, for which there is a wide range of sentencing options.  In view of the circumstances surrounding the case and his early guilty plea, Rausing was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment, suspended for 2 years.  He was additionally sentenced to 2 months imprisonment suspended for 2 years for the offence of driving when unfit through drugs.  Both were subject to the same drug rehabilitation and supervision requirements.

Comment

The Crown Prosecution Service, (CPS), has published legal guidance for use by prosecutors and caseworkers in relation to criminal offences and procedural issues, and the prevention of a lawful and decent burial falls within those relating offences concerning the coroner.  Within this category, there is a hierarchy of gravity of offence, commencing with preventing the burial of a body, the one with which Rausing was charged.  This is a common law offence, triable on indictment only with the potential of unlimited imprisonment, but does not require proof of the specific intent required for obstructing a coroner.

Any disposal of a corpse with intent to obstruct or prevent a coroner’s inquest, when there is a duty to hold one, is a more serious offence.  This again is triable only on indictment and carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and/or a fine.  However, where such obstruction is considered sufficiently serious, it may attract the offence of perverting the course of justice.

Rausing was charged with the lesser offence of preventing the burial of a body.  This is generally used in cases where there is no foul play relating to the death of the deceased on the part of the defendant, for example, following death of a drug addict at home of appellant, (R v Parry (1986) 8 Cr App R (S) 470) and an accidental self-strangulation by scarf, (R v Hunter [1974] QB 95).  However, in some cases the offence is sometimes accompanied by other criminal activity: the continued collection of benefits formerly due to the deceased; and the cover-up of blunder by undertakers by co-cremating the body of a child whom they should have buried.

However, it may also be added to a series of more serious charges, as in the unreported case of R v Black (M Hirst, ‘Preventing the lawful burial of a body’ (1996 Crim LR 96)).  Robert Black was a serial child murderer, who received a total of 10 life sentences for a range of common law offences: murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment and three counts of preventing the lawful burial of his victims’ bodies, which he left lying beside main roads or, in one case, in a river.  However, as Hirst notes, in view of the sentence (least 35 years for each of the murders), the charges and sentences for preventing burial ultimately proved to be of no practical significance, although they could have been relevant should other aspects of the prosecution fail, as in R v Swindell (1981) 3 Cr. App. R. (S.) 255).

A more recent use was in relation to the 21 year old disappearance of Nicola Payne in which two men were arrested (but subsequently released) on suspicion of conspiracy to prevent the lawful and decent burial of a body.

In sentencing Rausing, HHJ McGregor-Johnson noted, [at paras. 2 and 3]:

‘[t]he sentencing decisions on offences of this type to which I have been referred make it clear that there is a wide range of sentencing options, very much dependent on the intentions and purpose behind the concealing of the death.

At its most serious, where the concealment is done to frustrate justice and especially where the death itself was criminal or potentially so, substantial immediate custodial sentence have been upheld. Those are not the facts of this case.

I accept that the medical evidence, including that of the examination of the pacemaker and toxicology report, suggests that your wife died of heart failure coupled with the effect of drugs; there is no evidence to suggest the involvement of anyone else, including you, in her death’.

He continued [at para. 4]

‘I have come to the conclusion, however, that the circumstances in which you committed this offence, and especially your mental state at the time, and your continuing need for treatment, allow me to take a different course, [i.e. a suspended sentence].

Footnote

The treatment of a body prior to its final disposal is subject to a quasi-hierarchy of rights, based upon its ‘custody and possession’, i.e.

‘the person who has actual physical custody of the body has lawful possession (and the duty of disposal) of it until someone with a higher right (e.g. an executor or parent) claims the body … In the absence of the executors there is a common law duty to see that the body is buried and the person lawfully in possession is normally the occupier of the premises where the body lies, or the person who has the body,’

I Kennedy and A Grubb, Medical Law Text and Materials (Butterworths, 1989, London)

In certain circumstance, it is possible for the executor or parent to delay to burial of a body, as in the case of Helen Smith, whose body remained in a mortuary for 30 years while her father campaigned for a new inquiry into the circumstances surrounding her death.  This is believed to be the longest period a body has remained lawfully unburied in Britain.

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