High Court rules that Richard III must be buried in Leicester Cathedral

The Government has successfully defended the judicial review claim brought by Leeds firm Gordons on behalf of the “descendants” of Richard III, meaning the remains of the last Plantagenet king will be buried in Leicester.

In a judgment handed down this morning (23 May) Lady Justice Hallett and Mr Justices Ouseley and Haddon-Cave rejected the claim, bringing to an end a year-long fight over where Richard III’s skeleton should be buried.

The decision was a victory for Blackstone Chambers’ James Eadie QC, the Treasury Devil, leading 3 Raymond Buildings’ Ben Watson for the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling MP.

The judicial review was launched over a year ago by Gordons on behalf of the Plantagenet Alliance (26 March 2013) and permission for the case was granted in August (16 August 2013). When he granted the judicial review, Haddon-Cave J also imposed a £70,000 protective costs order which now prevents the defendants from recovering their costs.

The alliance, a group styling itself as the descendants of Richard III, was challenging the lack of consultation over the terms of an exhumation licence which allowed Leicester University to dig up “unknown remains” from a carpark in September 2012. The licence stipulated the remains should be reinterred at the Jewry Wall Museum, Leicester Cathedral or “in a burial ground in which interments may legally take place” by 31 August this year.

Following DNA tests, the exhumed skeleton was identified as Richard III, and the university, together with the cathedral and council, agreed that the king should be laid to rest in the cathedral. However the claimants were campaigning for Richard III to be buried in York Minster instead of Leicester – a position supported by the City of York, while the Dean and Chapter of York Minster took a neutral position.

A one-day November hearing (26 November 2013) was postponed after Leicester City Council was joined as a third defendant, leaving the three-strong panel with too much to get through.

In today’s judgment the High Court said that the terms of the licence and the Ministry of Justice’s letter accompanying it should be read together, and that Leicester Cathedral is the only place in which the remains can be interred.

“The licence is not a document which is placed on a public register for the information of the public so that the public can act on it,” the judgment said. “The letter and form confirm that the meaning of the licence set out above is the one which both applicant and grantor understood and agreed. The consequence is that unless and until the Secretary of State amends the licence, if he has the power to do so, ULAS [University of Leicester Archaeological Services] is obliged to reinter the remains in Leicester Cathedral.”

The court found that Grayling had not acted “irrationally” when he decided not to revisit the exhumation licence and that he was not required to consult anyone over the terms of the licence or the place in which Richard III should be buried.

“None [of the guidance documents] shows an established practice on the part of the Secretary of State to consult long lost collateral relatives in the event of the archaeological discovery of the remains of a historical figure after 500 years. In our judgment, none gives rise to a legitimate expectation that collateral descendants would be consulted, after centuries, in relation to an exhumed historical figure,” said the judgment.

In throwing out all of the claimants’ arguments, the court added: “At all material times in this case the Secretary of State was sufficiently aware of the views of Sovereign, State and the Church to be able to make an informed decision.”

The judgment also noted that the university was not acting as a public body at any time in the course of the exhumation, retention and reinternment of Richard III, making a judicial review claim against it “bound to fail”. It also said that Leicester Council’s intervention, prior to the November hearing, in which it described itself as the “legal sentinel” of Richard III’s bones was “unnecessary, unhelpful and misconceived”. As the council later acknowledged this position, the court said it had not been necessary to join it as a defendant and therefore the claim against the council should fail too.

In a postscript to a judgment which sets out the history not only of the debate over the burial place of Richard III, but also of his life and death, the court added: “Since Richard III’s exhumation on 5th September 2012, passions have been roused and much ink has been spilt. Issues relating to his life and death and place of re- interment have been exhaustively examined and debated. The Very Reverend David Monteith, the Dean of Leicester Cathedral, has explained the considerable efforts and expenditure invested by the Cathedral in order to create a lasting burial place ’as befits an anointed King’. We agree that it is time for Richard III to be given a dignified reburial, and finally laid to rest.”

The legal line-up:

For the claimants, the Plantagenet Alliance

Gordons partner Matthew Howarth, instructing Blackstone Chambers’ Gerard Clarke and Tom Cleaver

For the first defendant, the Secretary of State for Justice

Treasury Solicitors, instructing Blackstone Chambers’ James Eadie QC and 3 Raymond Buildings’ Ben Watson

For the second defendant, the University of Leicester

In-house counsel Penny McConnell, instructing 11KBW’s Anya Proops and Heather Emmerson

For the third defendant, Leicester City Council

In-house counsel, instructing 11KBW’s Andrew Sharland

For the first interested party, the Cathedral of Saint Martin Leicester

Latham & Co senior partner Trevor Kirkman