Fighting for the Rights of the Dead

An intervention to prevent an invasive autopsy delivered long term guarantees for the rights of religious minorities.

Challenge

Asserson was approached by leaders of one of the best known Jewish communal organisations in the UK. The coroner who covered most of North West London had on several occasions insisted on carrying out invasive autopsies, which are against Jewish law. The Coroner, who is a judicial appointee, refused to negotiate on many occasions. Asserson was approached in relation to one particular incident where an invasive autopsy was threatened within hours, in order to argue a general case.

Inspiration

Given the circumstances, time was of the essence. Asserson took out an emergency injunction for the family at the High Court, halting the autopsy. A scan was carried out and the cause of death accurately established, enabling the funeral to take place. Asserson challenged the coroner’s decision by Judicial Review, arguing that decisions running counter to the wishes of the deceased and their family constituted a breach of their Human Rights. The Board of Deputies; the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom; the United Synagogue; The Muslim Council of Britain and others supported the case. The case also drew the personal attention of two Government ministers – the Secretary of State for Justice and the Minister or Equality – who met with Asserson to discuss the case.

Result

Asserson brought the case to a successful judicial review hearing in the High Court, and as a result a set of guidelines was established requiring coroners to avoid invasive autopsy where possible, to uphold the religious rights of Jews and Muslims. This marked the first time that the court established these principles in law. Costs were awarded against the Coroner.

The case set a high water mark for the protection of religious rights, and has been employed to good effect with respect to other public services.

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