Chancellor blasts council for flattened gravestones

02 November 2006


CHANCELLOR James Behrens, in the Leicester Consistory Court, has refused a confirmatory faculty in respect of the actions of Leicester City Council. The Council had, in the interests of health and safety, laid flat over 100 gravestones in the consecrated, Church of England section of Welford Road Cemetery, without first obtaining a faculty or informing the relatives of the dead.

Welford Road Cemetery has a Grade II listing in English Heritage's register of parks and gardens of historic importance. It was opened in 1849 and was, throughout the Victorian period Leicester's only corporation cemetery. The site extends to 30 acres and contains 40,000 graves, of which 22,000 have memorials. The consecrated section contains 10,000 memorials.

In the second half of 2001 the Council became increasingly aware of several accidents, including fatalities, due to unsafe memorials in cemeteries. There was also local concern about cemetery safety.

In October 2002, on the recommendation of the Confederation of Burial Authorities, the Council engaged a firm, Welters Worldwide, to inspect all the gravestones. Any that were assessed to be unsafe would be propped up by being attached to a large metal stake.

However, as the work progressed costs escalated, the Council felt it was not getting value for money. It therefore decided to dispense with the services of Welters and do the remainder of the work itself.

The Council found that several memorials had been missed by Welters Worldwide and were unstable, and that safety notices that had been put around unstable, monuments had been removed. The Council therefore concluded that the only safe thing to do was to lay down all the unsafe memorials.

Between January and March 2004 the Council embarked on a programme of making the cemetery safe by laying down all memorials found to be unsafe. The cemetery was closed because of health-and-safety concerns, and visitors were allowed in only by booking a time to visit and signing in at the entrance.

Around 300 people signed a petition objecting to the Council's actions, and articles appeared in the press criticising what had taken place. Complaints were made to Leicester's two MPs. At about the same time, the Council found out that it should have applied for a faculty, since its power to keep municipal cemeteries safe is subject, in the consecrated part of the cemetery, to the jurisdiction of the Consistory Court.

The Rural Dean, the Revd Howard Cocks, and Lisa Handy, the Bereavement Service Manager of Leicester City Council, petitioned the Consistory Court for a confirmatory faculty after the Council had carried out the work. The petition was opposed by Edward Hryniewiecki, chairman of the Federation of Poles in Leicester.

The Polish community in Leicester have forebears who are buried in the Church of England consecrated part of the cemetery, even though most of them were Roman Catholic. No part of the cemetery is consecrated by the Roman Catholic Church.

The Polish families considered the Council's actions over-zealous, over-hasty, insensitive, and disrespectful to the Polish community and their dead. They complained that the Council had not communicated with them before laying flat some 119 gravestones, and argued that the Council's refusal to bear the cost of making each memorial safe (at between £100 and £200 for each memorial) was based either on a misunderstanding of, or a deliberate refusal to undertake, its legal responsibilities. They sought a restoration order requiring the council to repair and make safe at its own cost all memorials which it had laid down.

The Council said that efforts had been made to contact the families concerned with the memorials that had been found to be unsafe. A telephone helpline had been set up, advertisements were placed in the Leicester Mercury, and announcements were made on Radio Leicester. Notices were also put up at the entrance gates of the cemetery.

Mr Hryniewiecki said that the gravestones of his grandparents and other members of his family had been laid down, although they were perfectly safe. He also said that several memorials had been chipped and damaged, and that "chunks of gravestone had been literally hacked out, as if a sledge hammer had been applied to test the gravestone". Others also gave evidence of damage to their relatives' gravestones.

None of the Polish witnesses had read the Leicester Mercury nor listened to Radio Leicester. They had not seen the notices placed at the entrance to the cemetery, probably because they drove straight into the cemetery in their cars without stopping at the entrance. When they tried to contact the telephone helpline, it was unmanned. Nor did any of the Polish witnesses receive any notice from the Council of what it was doing to the memorials.

The Chancellor described the difference between Council's bland statements that it had done all the right things to ensure people knew what was being done, and the reality, as having "a certain Kafkaesque quality". It would not be appropriate, the Chancellor said, to order the Council to repair just the 119 Polish memorials. That might be unlawful discrimination in favour of the Polish Community. To avoid any suggestion of such discrimination it was better to order the repair of all the memorials which had been laid flat in the consecrated area, even though it was only the Poles who had objected to the Council's actions.

A cemetery where a significant number of memorials had been laid flat was disrespectful and an eyesore, and in the Chancellor's judgment the Council had over-reacted to health and safety issues.

The confirmatory faculty was refused in respect of past work, and the Council was ordered to reinstate and repair to a safe condition all the gravestones which had been laid flat in the consecrated section. Where there was a dispute over whether the Council's actions had resulted in damage to a memorial, that should be referred to arbitration by a suitably qualified third party.

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