The Coroner Service and reducing delays for funerals

The House of Commons Justice Committee has published a report on The Coroner Service in England & Wales. One of the issues that it addresses is reducing delays so that a funeral can be held quickly – a matter of great importance to the Muslim and Jewish communities. The Justice Committee’s report says this on the subject:

Reducing delays so a funeral can be held

50. A funeral cannot take place until the coroner releases the body. The time taken for a coroner to release a body for burial or cremation can depend on several factors, including time of death and whether this is outside usual office hours (for example, over a weekend or bank holiday). Sometimes, bereaved families request the coroner to treat a particular death as a matter of urgency. This might be, for example, because the family has a religious or cultural belief that the body should be buried on the day of death or as soon as possible thereafter. Jewish and Muslim families, or their representatives, sometimes make such requests.

51. In May 2018, the Chief Coroner issued new guidance on expedited decision-making. This guidance states that coroners should pay appropriate respect to religious and cultural wishes about the treatment of a body and burial following a death. Any policy or practices adopted by coroners must be sufficiently flexible to allow them to give due consideration to expediting decisions where there is good reason to do so. They should seek to strike a fair balance between the interests of those with a well-founded request for expedition (including on religious grounds) and other families who may be affected.

52. We received written evidence from several faith groups on variations between areas. For example, the Board of Deputies of British Jews told us that individual relationships with Coroners could be more important than systemic factors:

‘the Jewish community has excellent relations with the vast majority of Coroners, who accommodate the requirements of the Jewish community, especially in regard to early release of bodies and non-invasive autopsy. This is almost entirely due to the building up of individual relationships – there is very little systemic guarantee of such provision. Hence, when a Coroner does not wish to accommodate the needs of a local Jewish community, there appears to be little that can be done.’

53. The Chief Coroner’s guidance on when and how to expedite a case to meet with the requirements of the beliefs of the deceased is welcome, but whether the needs of faith communities will be met or not depends on how the Coroner Service responds locally. We encourage the new Chief Coroner to continue the work of his predecessor in liaising with stakeholders, including with faith representatives, so that any problems with expediting cases can be identified and addressed as they arise.” [emphasis in original].

The issue arose in R (Adath Yisroel Burial Society & Anor) v HM Senior Coroner for Inner North London [2018] EWHC 969, in which the Burial Society sought judicial review of the Senior Coroner’s policy of applying a “cab rank” rule to burials and refusing to prioritise Jewish and Muslim burials:  we noted it here. Subsequent to that judgment, HM Senior Coroner for Inner North London issued a draft protocol for the order in which deaths reported to her would be considered, which included at point 10, “particular characteristics known about the deceased, for example, if the deceased is a child, or if they are of a religion or culture where observers commonly seek early funeral”.

One must not underestimate the time-pressures on coroners in busy jurisdictions but, clearly, there is a problem here, if only in some areas. We await the Government’s response with interest.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "The Coroner Service and reducing delays for funerals" in Law & Religion UK, 28 May 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/05/28/the-coroner-service-and-reducing-delays-for-funerals/

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