A Hong Kong law professor has been asked to help settle the debate in England over where to re-bury the remains of King Richard III.
Steven Gallagher, an assistant dean at Chinese University's faculty of law, said he was approached a few weeks ago by one of the groups involved in the tussle over the final resting place for the bones, which were uncovered in Leicester in September last year.
Gallagher will not identify the people who contacted him, only saying they want the bones sent to York. Richard belonged to the House of York and spent much of his childhood in Yorkshire. But a competing claim is being made by a Leicester cathedral, which has government permission to inter the remains. And it's not just propriety that is at stake - the chosen site is sure to attract tourist dollars. "It is not that often we would dig up the remains of historic figures," Gallagher said, calling the case "unusual and very interesting".
Gallagher, who studies cultural heritage, restitution and equity issues, suspects he was approached for help after he published articles in British and international law journals on the legal issues surrounding exhumation and remains. He has also given legal advice in cases in Britain involving human remains.
Richard died at the age of 32 in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and the victorious Henry VII had his body sent to Leicester and buried at a church. The building was later demolished but historical documents describing the burial remain, and they helped guide researchers. Archaeologists from the University of Leicester last year found the grave under a car park. It contained a skeleton with spinal abnormalities consistent with a disease Richard suffered. DNA tests on living descendants confirmed the bones belonged to the king.
Gallagher has been asked to advise the group on how to argue for returning the remains to York and also to challenge the excavation licence issued by the Ministry of Justice. The licence stipulated that the king's remains should be "deposited in [Leicester's] Jewry Wall Museum or else be re-interred at [the city's] St Martin's Cathedral or a burial ground in which interments may legally take place", according to a report in The Guardian.
While Gallagher won't name his backers, the newspaper reported last month that lawyers acting on behalf of 15 people claiming to be Richard's relatives intended to lodge an application for a judicial review against the ministry. But Gallagher said that, generally speaking, a "judicial review is expensive. Second, all you can do is to challenge whether a minister has exceeded his authority and you may get him to reconsider what he has done".
Rather than a judicial review, a better option would be for living descendants to apply to the court for letters of administration - legal documents that confer authority to deal with the assets of a deceased person who has not left a will appointing executors.
Letters of administration have been granted in cases in Australia and New Zealand in which the people died many years ago and left no estate, and which allowed the administrators to dispose of the remains. "When they [the administrators] have the duty to dispose of the remains, the duty gives them the right to decide where the remains can be buried," Gallagher said. "But the risk is you may get another group of living descendants to apply for letters of administration - that would give rise to competing administration claims."