In a landmark decision on Tuesday, a British High Court judge upheld the right of bereaved families to reject invasive autopsies on religious grounds. The judicial review was the final stage in the ongoing disagreement between the Inner London Coroner Mary Hassell and distressed families, many from the Jewish or Muslim communities. Ms. Hassell has a history of insisting on invasive autopsies, even when the family has requested other methods of investigation, such as a CT scan or blood tests, and even when the family has offered to pay for them. In some cases, the family has had to obtain an emergency injunction to prevent a post-mortem from taking place, thus further delaying burial. Speedy burial is of great importance to both Jews and Muslims.
The solicitor in the case, Trevor Asserson, acted on behalf of the claimant — a family who had to obtain an injunction to prevent an invasive autopsy on an elderly deceased mother — together with Sam Grodzinski, QC. Speaking before the hearing took place, Mr. Asserson said, “This case concerns the alleged lawfulness of the Senior Coroner’s approach to directing invasive post-mortem autopsies, in circumstances where there is a real possibility that non-invasive investigative scans will enable the cause of death to be determined and where the family of the deceased have expressed strong religious objections to an invasive procedure.”
The Muslim Council of Britain wrote a letter of support to the Royal Court of Justice, stating, “This case is one of general public importance, in particular to the religious community in Britain. Muslim families who suffer bereavement share the religious concerns of Jews and members of other faiths. These principal concerns are that burial should take place as soon as practicable after death and that there should be no desecration of the body.”
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis; Dayan Menachem Gelley, Rosh Beis Din of the London Beth Din; and the Board of Deputies all expressed their opinion that families’ wishes should be taken into consideration and invasive procedures should be avoided if at all possible.
On the day of the court case, asifos Tehillim were held in London and Manchester. Harav Ephraim Padwa, Mara d’Asra, London, requested that Tehillim be recited in local batei medrash. In Manchester, minyanim were assembled at the tziyunim of Harav Yehudah Zev Segal, zt”l, Manchester Rosh Yeshivah, and of Reb Shlomo Adler, z”l, who dedicated much effort and mesirus nefesh to introduce non-invasive scans to ascertain cause of death.
The Court heard the complaints of the plaintiffs, who included members of the Jewish community and an Imam. The Judge, Mr. Justice Mitting, also took into account an impressive written submission from Dayan Sholom Friedman on the serious view taken by the Jewish religion on unnecessarily desecrating a dead body. In view of the clear evidence placed before the Court, the judge ruled that the decisions of the Coroner had been “flawed.” He clarified the law and ruled that a coroner should generally not immediately proceed with an autopsy but first conduct a scan, taking a step-by-step approach.
Citing the Article of Human Rights on Freedom of Religion, the Judge declared that the Coroner had acted illegally, and awarded 90 percent of the costs of the case against her. The result of this judgment is that, in future, a Coroner will have to show far greater sensitivity to the needs of minority communities.
Rabbi Asher Gratt, speaking on behalf of the Adath Yisroel Burial Society, told The JC, “Our community can breathe a sigh of relief. Justice has prevailed.”
Mr. Asserson said he was “delighted at the judgment which vindicates the position taken by the family. This is an important decision in protecting the religious rights of Muslims and Jews in this country.”