Quick warning – this case is about a child who has died, and the issue in the case was disposal of the child’s cadaver. So it may be distressing or upsetting to some readers – I will do my best to treat the subject matter with gravity and sensitivity. There’s nothing intentionally detailed or gruesome within the piece, but obviously the central issue is upsetting.
Also, there’s a criminal trial pending, so please no speculation about the identity of the parents or what may or may not have happened to the child – nobody wants to run the risk of prejudicing a fair trial.
Re K (A Child : deceased), Re 
The child died in July 2016. The Coroner released the body in October 2016. In March 2017, the child had still not been buried and no arrangements had been made for a funeral. The child’s half-sibling had been involved in care proceedings and the Local Authority, having done all that they could to persuade the parents to make those funeral arrangements, sought permission from the Court to step in and arrange the funeral themselves.
5.It was common ground during the course of submissions that the starting point in establishing a jurisdictional basis for orders relating to the burial of a child is to be found in Buchanan v Milton  2 FLR 844 at 845/846 per Hale J, as she then was:
“There is no right of ownership in a dead body. However, there is a duty at common law to arrange for its proper disposal. This duty falls primarily upon the personal representatives of the deceased (see Williams v Williams (1881) 20 ChD 659; Rees v Hughes  KB 517). An executor appointed by will is entitled to obtain possession of the body for that purpose (see Sharp v Lush (1879) 10 ChD 468, 472; Dobson v North Tyneside Health Authority and Another  1 FLR 598, 602, obiter) even before the grant of probate. Where there is no executor, that same duty falls upon the administrators of the estate, but they may not be able to obtain an injunction for delivery of the body before the grant of letters of administration (see Dobson).”
- In Re JS (disposal of body)  EWHC 2859 (Fam) Peter Jackson J observed:
“47. The law in relation to the disposition of a dead body emanates from the decision of Kay J in Williams v Williams  LR 20 ChD 659, which establishes that a dead body is not property and therefore cannot be disposed of by will. The administrator or executor of the estate has the right to possession of (but no property in) the body and the duty to arrange for its proper disposal. The concept of ‘proper disposal’ is not defined, but it is to be noted that customs change over time. It was not until the end of the 19th century that cremation was recognised as lawful in the United Kingdom, and it was in due course regulated by the Cremation Act 1902. Nowadays cremation is chosen in about 3 out of 4 cases in this country.
- Thus, in English law, there is no right to dictate the treatment of one’s body after death. This is so regardless of testamentary capacity or religion. The wishes of the deceased are relevant, perhaps highly so, but are not determinative and cannot bind third parties. For discussion of the impact of the European Convention on Human Rights on the common law in this respect, see Burrows v HM Coroner for Preston  EWHC 1387 (QB) and Ibuna v Arroyo  EWHC 428 (Ch).”
[The Justice Peter Jackson case is one you might recall – where the teenaged child wanted to be cryogenically frozen after death, mum supported it and dad wasn’t keen. It was unusual.]
Whilst there is no legal ownership of a cadaver, the general principle is that the immediate family of the deceased have responsibility for arranging the funeral. What happens where, as here, the family do not take any action?
In Anstey v Mundle  EWHC 1073 (Ch) Mr Jonathon Klein sitting as Deputy Judge of the Chancery Division concluded that the Court could not determine or direct where or how the deceased would be buried, but could declare who had the power and duty to bury the deceased, among the various contending parties. The judge adopted the reasoning of Ms Proudman QC, as she then was, in Hartshorne v Gardner  EWHC 3675 (Ch).
“24. …In that case, Ms Sonia Proudman QC, sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge, was invited to exercise the court’s inherent jurisdiction to direct to whom the deceased’s body should be released for the purposes of its burial. The judge accepted, as Hart J had apparently done before her, that the court has such an inherent jurisdiction. In that case, the claimant and the defendant were equally entitled to a grant of representation. It is perhaps notable that the judge did not exercise any section 116 jurisdiction. In that case, the judge identified factors which were relevant to the exercise of the court’s jurisdiction, although she did not seek to limit the relevant factors to those she listed.
- The factors she identified were: one, the deceased’s wishes; two, the reasonable requirements and wishes of the family who are left to grieve; three, the location with which the deceased was most closely connected; and, four, to quote the judgment, “the most important consideration is that the body be disposed of with all proper respect and decency and if possible without further delay”. I have concluded that in this case those are also the relevant factors which I should consider.”
10.Mr Sharp contends that the factors identified at points two and four above are plainly relevant here. I agree. I would also stress that I consider proper respect and decency is not presently being shown to K’s body. I would also emphasise that there has been wholly unacceptable delay. I note that the Births and Deaths Regulations 1987 Reg 51(2) provides that if the registrar learns (after a delay of 14 days from the date on which he should have received notification of the date, place and means of disposal of the body) that the body has not been disposed of he must, unless he is informed that the body is being held for the purposes of the Human Tissue Act 2004, report the matter to the officer responsible for matters of environmental health for the district in which the body is lying. This, to my mind, indicates that as a matter of public policy, a body should be disposed of with due dispatch.
This next statutory provision arises more often with deaths in the elderly community with those who have no relatives, and is for public health grounds
Section 46(1) of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 provides:
“It shall be the duty of a local authority to cause to be buried or cremated the body of any person who has died or been found dead in their area, in any case where it appears to the authority that no suitable arrangements for the disposal of the body have been or are being made otherwise than by the authority.”
Whilst this does not directly illuminate any of the issues that fall to be considered here it does indicate the general promotion of respect and decency for a body and the obligation for it to be disposed of with proper dispatch that is reflected in the case law that I have set out above
The Court here was asked whether under the inherent jurisdiction, the Court could authorise for the Local Authority to undertake the burial.
the concept of ‘a wise parent acting for the true interests of the [particular] child’ is integral to both the parens patriae and the inherent jurisdiction. It is, to my mind, axiomatic that a ‘wise parent’ would attend to the burial of a child. Thus having regard to the historical base and underlying philosophy of the inherent jurisdiction and the case law to which Mr Sharp has drawn my attention, I am satisfied that, pursuant to the inherent jurisdictional powers of the High court, I can authorise the Local Authority to make arrangements for the disposal of K’s body by way of burial or cremation, making the necessary funeral arrangements and if the body be cremated the disposal of the deceased remains. There are pressing practical reasons why this requires to be attended to expeditiously which are too distressing to incorporate within this judgment and need not be.
One of the obvious things that I wondered was whether there was some forensic reason connected with the criminal trial (i.e a second opinion autopsy or similar exercise) why the parents had been reluctant.
The Court was appraised of a letter from father’s counsel in criminal proceedings raising just that suggestion, but this is confused rather because there were representations from his criminal solicitor to a rather different effect. In any event, the Court was not satisfied that arranging a funeral would interfere with the parents right to a fair criminal trial.
In a postscript, the Court notes that the funeral took place and thankfully both parents attended