Coroners must send bodies for scans or blood tests rather than carry out autopsies if the deceased’s religion demands the corpse must stay intact, the High Court has ruled, in a landmark legal victory for the religious rights of Muslims and Jews, the Independent reports.
The two communities celebrated after a judicial review hearing established a set of principles coroners must follow where families have expressed fundamental religious objections to full post-mortems. Muslims and Jews regard invasive autopsies, defined by one Jewish leader as “cutting open a body and removing internal organs” as the desecration of a body in religious law and to be avoided where possible.
Mr Justice Mitting described several rules that must from now on be followed – including that there is an “established religious tenet” an invasive autopsy should be avoided, a “realistic possibility” that a non-invasive autopsy, such as a CT scan or blood cultures, would establish cause of death, and that the coroner must still be able to carry out their legal obligation to establish cause of death to the best of their ability.
The non-invasive procedure should also be done “without imposing an additional cost burden on the coroner,” the judge added.
Although two judges had already decided a scan should normally be permitted where required for religious reasons, the new ruling is the first time the court has established these principles in law.
The one-day final hearing of the case was the culmination of a judicial review taken out by the family of Serlotta Rotsztein, an elderly Orthodox Jew who passed away on 29 September last shortly after being admitted to the Royal Free Hospital in London.
Despite protestations from her family, Inner London coroner Mary Hassell ordered an invasive autopsy on the 86-year-old’s body following conflicting medical opinion she received on the exact cause of Mrs Rotsztein’s death.
They also argued that the decision breached their human rights under Article 9 of the Human Rights Act regarding freedom of religion.
Mr Justice Mitting said it was “unreasonable to expect perfection” from coroners deaing with these kinds of cases but concluded that Ms Hassell had made a “flawed” decision in this instance as he had expected her to make “a correct legal approach”.