The Board of Deputies of British Jews is the democratic and representative body for the UK’s Jewish community. We are the first port of call for Government, the media and others seeking to understand the Jewish community’s interests and concerns.
The post-death legal system, and care for bereaved families, is a perennial concern for the Jewish community, given how increased referrals to the Coroners in recent decades have had the capacity to interfere with Jewish burial and mourning traditions. Therefore, by way of background, we have included in this submission:
These two documents outline reforms that, in the view of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, would ensure a post-death legal system which was much more faith sensitive.
However, to focus on the particular questions the inquiry has posed, it should be made clear that 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.
The fact that this is not a systemic failure but a particular failure, resulting from the particular quirks of a given local Coroner service, results in a loss of confidence in the system as a whole. If a faith-sensitive service is dependent on which individual happens to be appointed as a Senior Coroner for an area, then the Jewish community has no guarantee that as Coroners are replaced or the Jewish population migrates to new areas, these problems will not reoccur.
While the Jewish community understands and supports the need for Judicial Independence concerning Coroner decisions, it is difficult to understand the need for independence relating to matters of process. Such matters of process, which would not appear to have any material impact on the coronial decision, include:
In these process-related elements, the Board of Deputies would welcome a national Coroner decision making protocol for which Coroners should report their compliance, and which would be potentially enforceable.
The Jewish community has had an overwhelming positive experience of working with Coroners during the Covid pandemic. However, unfortunately isolated incidents have occurred, involving invasive autopsy and delayed release of bodies which have required intervention.
The rollout of medical examiners gives an opportunity for a much better service for the bereaved. Communication should establish whether the body requires to be held for further investigation, and whether an autopsy is required. Hopefully, if one is required then the medical examiner should have laid the groundwork for handling the deceased’s body in accordance with our traditional practices, i.e. non-invasive in the first instance, and in compliance with the law. The Coroner should then be involved in the decision making process. For this purpose the legal status of the medical examiner, and their code of practice, needs to be resolved through legislation as soon as possible.
Please see the two documents mentioned above and attached below, for more information on the Board of Deputies’ approach to Coroner issues.
Further written evidence from Board of Deputies of British Jews
The Board of Deputies understands that it is possible to make a short late submission to the Committee’s Inquiry into Coroner Services. We are grateful for this opportunity and are taking it up by this correspondence.
The central policy challenge of Coroner Services, as perceived by the Board of Deputies, is how to reconcile a level of accountability that will drive improvements in performance with judicial independence. For the Jewish community, the elements of performance that are of most concern are:
In addition, the Board of Deputies would appreciate the Committee investigating the potential efficacy of placing a ‘Duty of Care’ upon coroners and medical examiners.
The concept of a ‘Duty of Care’ is currently present in several public services, including healthcare, social care and education. Its applicability in this situation rests on the concept that coroners – and medical examiners – do not just serve the wider community in general, but also the bereaved family, in establishing cause of death. And since they serve the bereaved family, coroners owe a duty of care towards them in minimising their distress, by, for example, good communication, swift release of the body when requested and a faith-sensitive approach to autopsy.
The Board of Deputies holds this to be a worthwhile line of investigation for the committee in its deliberation as to improving the coroner service and would be appreciative if it looked into this matter.
24 September 2020
CORONER ACCOUNTABILITY REFORM
10 APRIL 2018
Since its foundation, the Board of Deputies of British Jews has upheld the Jewish precept of “respect for the law of the land”.
In England and Wales this has always included the utmost respect for Coroners, as valuable officers who play an important legal role in protecting the public. Coroner independence in decision-making is recognised by the Jewish community as a much-valued and respected asset. In Scotland, the independence of the Procurator-Fiscal is highly respected.
In parallel with this, in most instances Coroners have shown considerable respect for the specific sensitivities of Jewish tradition and practice surrounding death, burial and bereavement. This includes:
The implications of these practices are that:
These principles apply to all Jewish deaths whether or not there is coronial involvement. However, the Board of Deputies is aware that there has been an increase in the numbers of deaths referred to Coroner services in recent years, and therefore the potential impact of Coroner services on Jewish mourning practices.
These steps are necessary for a coronial service which is sensitive to the community’s needs. The Board of Deputies’ active engagement with the Law Commission and Government consultations on the issue of Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards reflects this.
Governance and Accountability
At each stage in the process of arranging the handling of the deceased’s body, issues may arise relating to questions of responsibility, governance and accountability. However, in most places where a coronial jurisdiction operates in England and Wales, the Coroners engage sensitively with Jewish needs, work effectively with Jewish burial societies, make decisions rapidly, and facilitate the quick release of bodies wherever possible. The Board of Deputies has been asked on several occasions to write to Coroners thanking them for the way they have made it possible for the deceased’s body to be quickly buried.
The Jewish community is aware that there needs to be co-operation between several parties to ensure positive outcomes. The Coroner’s officers are primarily responsible both to their senior Coroner and to the police. The registration process is done within the local authority. The medical certification may be done by an independent general practitioner, regulated by the General Medical Council (GMC), or by a hospital doctor, who is responsible and accountable to a trust as well as to the GMC. The autopsy may be done by an imager or by a pathologist. All of these have a duty to undertake their expert tasks in the interests of justice and to give an account of their activities relevant to the case to the Coroner for the appropriate independent decisions to be made.
Current controversy - Inner North London Coroners Services
Unfortunately, The Board of Deputies regrets that there is one Coroner service which has consistently shown a lack of sensitivity to Jewish community issues. This is the Inner North London Coroners Service. In particular, this appears to have been due to the actions of the area’s senior Coroner, Mary Hassell.
Coroner Hassell has chosen to introduce the so-called “cab-rank rule”, whereby deaths reported to her are reviewed on a strictly first-come first-served basis. No discretion is exercised about the ordering of cases, even when families request early release to facilitate the manifestation of religious beliefs (or for any other reason).
Coroner Hassell’s approach has been reviewed previously on the grounds that she failed to offer alternative techniques to invasive autopsy. The current Judicial Review, which has been taken out by the Adass Yisroel Burial Society, and is concerned with the “cab-rank rule”, has been backed both within and outside the Jewish community. There is widespread anxiety that no requests for a swift release will be considered by this Coroner. Furthermore, the Board of Deputies has been informed that Coroner Hassell has refused to implement an out-of-hour service, inevitably delaying the release of bodies, despite the statement in the Chief Coroner’s “model service guidelines” that such facilities should be available. The lead local authority for Inner North London Coroners Service, the London Borough of Camden, has offered both financial and electronic resources repeatedly to support this service, but these have been refused by the Coroner.
The Board of Deputies has had no reason to doubt the coronial decisions made under Coroner Hassell’s jurisdiction. However, the Board of Deputies holds that there has been a dereliction of duty by Coroner Hassell with regard to the needs of the Jewish community, and that she has to be held accountable for this. We understand there are similar concerns in the Muslim community. In this regard, it seems extraordinary that there currently appears to be no process for holding a Coroner accountable for unsatisfactory service. As a judicial office holder, a Coroner can be removed from office by the Lord Chief Justice or the Lord Chancellor for personal misconduct, through the Judicial Complaints Investigation Office process. Beyond that a Coroner is very difficult to remove or relocate to another area, as this level of security is presumed to be needed to ensure judicial independence.
Accountability of Coroners
The Board of Deputies believes that Government needs to consider how better accountability can be introduced into the Coroner system to prevent a recurrence of the current controversy. The Jewish community’s experience with Coroner Hassell (in both Wales and London) suggests that a general reference in the Coroner legislation about religious and cultural sensitivities has not been sufficient in itself. Notably, it is on the one item that is specified (autopsy services) that the previous judicial review made a clear decision.
Regrettably the Board of Deputies concludes from this situation that more specified items need to be made explicit in law. This has to be done without in any way compromising coronial independence in decision-making, but with respect for the vulnerabilities and distress of bereaved families.
There are several options that the Board of Deputies would like to put forward for consideration:
If reporting shows that Coroners are seriously failing to meet the standards expected of them, the Chief Coroner should have a range of sanctions that can be applied appropriately.
These are tentative suggestions, and the Board of Deputies would of course welcome hearing about other possibilities which might achieve the same objective of increased accountability. At present this is a taxpayer-funded public service operating with little or no accountability: for the Jewish community at present there are no charges except in the less common circumstances when cremation is requested.
The Board of Deputies is not a specialist legal organisation able to develop in detail any potential reforms. Therefore, the suggestions are tentative, and require more detailed formulation and scrutiny. However, as previously during the period before the Coroner Reform and Human Tissue Acts were introduced, the Board of Deputies would welcome being invited to participate in such activities once again.
The Board of Deputies is also aware (and has argued recently in submissions regarding changes to Deprivation of Liberty safeguards) that a change in the law may take considerable time to implement. For the individual bereaved Jewish family each year (around 2,000 at risk in the UK) the thought of this lag period provides little comfort. Therefore, if it is possible to formulate realistic expectations and guidelines to ensure Coroner accountability that can be introduced far more rapidly, the Board of Deputies would favour such an approach.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews is the cross-communal organisation that exists to promote and defend the religious and civil liberties of British Jewry. Deputies are elected every three years. The Board provides a unique means through which British Jews can be represented and heard. Some parts of the Jewish community do not participate in the electoral and representational process, but wherever possible there is consultation and discussion with them about submissions to public bodies where there is a perception that there is a community of interest.
The Board recognises that there are some areas, particularly in the biomedical field, and in matters relating to end of life and bereavement, where a wide range of views may be expressed within the Jewish community. Decisions are made by the individual (or the individual family) – even if that decision is to consult with and accept the view of a personal (or familial) religious authority. Therefore, when making submissions on these topics, always the Board has to achieve a balance, but one that is nonetheless consistent with Jewish traditions and customs.
In order to facilitate the deliberations of this inquiry the Board is submitting a document entitled “Arranging a Jewish Burial” (Appendix A) which describes in simple terms how the Jewish community addresses death and burial. There are several published volumes written to be accessible to a wider Jewish audience outlining traditional practices for Jewish families; and most UK synagogal bodies will provide their own adaptations of this material.
As should be clear from Appendix A, there is a strong tradition for Jews to bury rapidly. Delays cause considerable distress to bereaved Jewish families. Although public discussion about delays often focuses on the Coroner System, it is important to recognise that delays adversely affect far more Jewish families - probably most- rather than being confined to those where there is coronial involvement after death.
An additional background to this summary is that while there is a higher concentration of British Jews in England, based chiefly in the London, Manchester and Leeds areas, there are Jews found throughout the UK, including in Wales (where problems are very similar to those in England) and Northern Ireland. The Jewish community in Scotland, where there is a different legal process (and where the Procurator Fiscal system can be more supportive of Jewish requirements than is seen elsewhere in the UK) works with the Scottish Government on these issues, based upon the same Jewish principles.
1. What is the average number of days between death and burial or cremation in England and Wales, and do regional variations exist?
i. Presumably the demographic information about average number of days must be available to Government by comparing dates of death and dates of burial / cremation for the same individual? This form of data has not been collected by the Jewish community.
ii. There are considerable variations in the delays between regions. Local awareness and availability of certifying doctors, and awareness and availability of suitably skilled personnel to handle bereaved Jewish families, are two reasons that are often given for this variation.
2. Does sufficient date exist to monitor delays?
There is not sufficient information monitoring delay, and the reasons for delay. However, there are many narrative examples of undue delay from the London area, particularly over weekends but all too commonly at other times.
3. What are the reasons for the increasing time between death and a funeral?
This question pre-supposes that the time is indeed increasing, which must be based upon anecdotal reports unless specific data are indeed available and have not been made public.
There are several potential reasons which could account for this increase in delay. The access to a doctor who can issue the death certificate, which triggers release of a body, is one limiting factor that has been exacerbated severely by changes in the working patterns of doctors, both in hospitals and in general practice settings. For example in hospitals the on call rota of a junior doctor can mean that a specific individual is not available for many hours after death; and in general practice the on call services that provide out of hours and weekend often cannot provide certificate. The “medical examiner” system (see below) was supposed to address this but has not been implemented.
The Coroner System has undergone major reforms, but uniform standards of acceptable practice have not been achieved as yet. Some areas have out of hours cover, others do not. The intermediary between the families and the Coroner – the Coroner’s Officer – can be very helpful, but again extent of cover is variable. These officers are employed as part of the police whereas the Coroners are part of the judicial system, which can increase the problems about out-of-hours service provision. The shortage of facilities for autopsies, and of pathologists to perform them, can contribute to delay.
Local authorities may not prioritise either training in the handling of death, or service provision. This problem will probably continue to resonate under the reformed Coroner System. Funding is required for an extended hour registration service, but this is only one facet of the problem. The Burial Societies and the Board often receive queries where an appointment for a Jewish family has been offered days if not weeks after a death.
4. Will the Government’s proposals for death certification reduce or increase the time between death and a funeral?
Government proposals presumably encompass the changes to the Coroner System which are in the process of being introduced. This includes extending and upgrading the mortuary and autopsy services in general, and expanding availability and use of minimal invasive autopsy, which Jewish tradition supports. These changes have not been introduced to alleviate delay, but may have that result.
One proposal that has not been introduced as yet is the creation of “medical examiner” posts, which imply better scrutiny of case records, and will allow expedited release of bodies for burial. Overall the Jewish community submissions on this subject were favourable, but did emphasise that this will rely on medical examiners being accessible out of hours in order to avoid delay. Our concern was that there was a perceived risk: without proper monitoring these posts might turn out to act as another bureaucratic barrier to rapid release of bodies. However, the pilot study performed in areas with a high Jewish population was very reassuring, showing clearly that the system is effective, does not increase delay, avoids some of the problems noted above about access to doctors, and in general appeared to have advantages for Jewish families.
5. Do the requirements of Social Fund applications cause delays in holding a funeral and what changes could be made to its administration to reduce delays?
Social Fund applications are less of a cause for the delays in the Jewish community than the factors mentioned above.
6. What impact do delays have on bereaved families?
The impact on bereaved families is very significant. It undermines Jewish bereavement practice fundamentally. This impact starts immediately: in Jewish tradition there is a special status for those who are official mourners (see Appendix A) in the period between death and burial, and this status (where the mourner is known as an “onan”) is intended to be as brief as possible. Delay in burial then leads to delay in the shiva, when friends and family can come to comfort them.
As noted previously, this impact is not confined to more observant families, and is also not confined to those who are planning on burial rather than cremation. This impact is the reason why the Board, the synagogal bodies and the burial societies are called upon by bereaved families, and attempt to provide as much help as they can when these families come to them for guidance and support.
7. What are the economic and other costs of delays in funerals?
There is no specific differential information about the economic costs of delays in Jewish funerals. The cost in distress is, of course, very considerable, as noted above.
Furthermore, there are hidden costs. The structure of Jewish bereavement is such that once the necessary paperwork has been completed, then burial and the start of the shiva process needs to happen as soon as possible. This is different from the customs of the wider society when a funeral can be booked a few weeks after death to allow time for all the documents to be in place. This uncertainty is unsettling; and, in addition, since all work activity is suspended for shiva it becomes very difficult to plan ahead, make necessary appointments etc.
8. Are there sufficient crematoria across England and Wales to cope with requirements?
Cremation is much less frequent than burial in the Jewish community in general, and is not an issue at all for the more observant. Thus the requirements of the Jewish community are unlikely to contribute significantly to this questions.
9. Is there sufficient availability of core slots at crematoria? See response to question 8 above.
10. What changes could be introduced by stakeholders involved in the burial and cremation process to reduce delays?
In view of question 11 (below) it is not clear as to which stakeholders this refers. The stakeholders from within the Jewish community (such as synagogal bodies and burial societies) are by definition continuously pro-active in attempting to reduce and eliminate delays. [It is relevant in this context to acknowledge that the “external stakeholders” involved in the minimal invasive autopsy service, such as the pathologists and mortuary staff, have been unfailingly helpful and supportive, and are a factor in reducing delays for the Jewish community].
11. What action should be taken by central and local Government to reduce delays in burial / cremation of the deceased?
The Board’s suggestions for action to be taken by central and local Government in order to reduce delays in burial / cremation should be self-evident from the above. Thus:
“Joined-up” thinking – and financing – between these “internal stakeholders”, including Ministries of Health and Justice, Coroners, police, local authority registration offices, and local medical services (both hospitals and care commissioning groups) is essential.
Provision of extended service provision hours – which could be on an on call basis covering several local areas – is essential.
Implementation of the Coroner reforms includes not only better standardisation of services (where progress has begun to be made based on guidelines from the Chief Coroner) but also introduction of the medical examiner approach, which itself will need to be monitored.
Improved facilities for autopsies, incorporating minimal invasive autopsies, needs to be provided.
Education and training needs to be provided for those handling the families of the bereaved in order to help them address faith and cultural diversity in a sensitive and supportive fashion.
Jewish tradition requires that burial should take place as soon as possible after death, preferably within 24 hours. Funerals do not take place on Shabbat or Festivals, but should take place as soon as possible afterwards.
There are some differences in degrees of observance amongst Jews which will impact on the requirements of the bereaved family. Orthodox Jews generally do not consent to full autopsy unless there is a specific question that needs to be addressed; minimal invasive autopsy rather than dissection is preferred; cremation is not allowed; and there are no flowers at the funeral. Some Reform, Liberal and Progressive synagogues allow cremations and flowers at the funerals.
The bereaved family should be given the opportunity to discuss their wishes with their individual synagogue or burial society as soon as possible after death.
Each synagogue either runs or is a member of a burial society (chevra kadisha). Each burial society maintains its own cemeteries. These societies will have a combination of employees and volunteers, both men and women, whose role is to ensure that the body of the deceased is shown proper respect, and the correct rituals are followed. Burial society members, Rabbis and congregational leaders will give guidance and advice where it is required, and in particular about how to comply with the differing requirements of Jewish and English law.
The key steps in the process of arranging a burial are:
1. Contact the burial society immediately, and/or the synagogue where either you or the deceased are a member as soon as possible. If you are not a synagogue member, and wish to have a Jewish burial, it is advisable to select one of the burial societies listed below and contact them. All the burial societies will be able to advise you about the documents that you will require in order for them to collect the body and prepare it for burial.
2. During the period between death and completion of the administrative paperwork leading to removal of the body there is a tradition amongst some Jews that the body should not be left alone. Members of the family, of the community and/or of the burial society may choose to do this. They will often read psalms while doing so.
3. Once you have the registered the death and have the documents from the Register Office, contact the burial society again and they will advise you about the next steps.
4. Provisional funeral arrangements will often have been made before the paperwork has been completed. These will need to be confirmed and relatives and friends notified when the details have been finalised.
5. If the burial is taking place under the auspices of a synagogue it is advisable to be in contact with the Rabbi of the community during this period.
6. The official mourners are the spouse, children, siblings and parents. Immediately after burial the traditional seven day mourning period (known as “shiva”) commences. There may be variable degrees of observance of shiva. If the custom of holding prayer services at home is to be followed, then low chairs for the mourners and prayer books will be required, and this also needs to be discussed with the Rabbi and/or burial society in advance of burial.