Pressure is being put on a well-respected London coroner, Mary Hassell, above, to resign because she stands accused of being ‘insensitive’ to Jews and Muslims by failing to release bodies for burial fast enough.
A member of the Jewish community told BBC Radio 4 tonight that the areas covered by St Pancras Coroner’s Court where Hassell works contains large numbers of Jews and Muslims who are “afraid” to die there, for fear breaching the religious rule that says they should be stuck in the ground within 24 hours of snuffing it.
Earlier, according to this Camden New Journal report, a Muslim Labour councillor, Abdul Hai, above, called on Hassell to resign, following complaints from religious leaders who say she has caused “immense anguish and trauma” to bereaved families.
Hai said Mary Hassell should leave her post and move to an area that has “less faith sensitivities”.
Muslim and Jewish families have repeatedly criticised Hassell over what they perceive as a failure to accommodate their religious beliefs. Both faiths prohibit invasive post-mortem examinations and require swift burials after death.
The coroner investigates deaths in Camden, Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets – collectively making up some of the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in the country. The issue came to a head over Christmas when the closure of the court lead to further hold-ups in releasing bodies to Jewish families.
Hai said he will be asking Phillip Lee MP, a justice minister, to intervene, adding:
It would be better if she goes to work in an area that has less faith sensitivities. We need a coroner that really understands the diversity, ethnicity and cultural matters of the community.
A Jewish burial society wrote to Camden Council earlier this month demanding Hassell’s dismisal. Councils in the four boroughs jointly appoint the coroner and pay her salary. However, according to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, once appointed, only the Lord Chancellor, with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice, may remove a coroner on the grounds of “incapacity of misbehaviour”.
Relations between Hassell and the Jewish community were strained when she removed an agreement that corpses could be taken to a mortuary that allowed them to be “guarded” by members of the faith until they could be buried, in accordance with Jewish law. Lawyers for the burial society have threatened to take Hassell to court, alleging an abuse of power and unlawful discrimination.
Rabbi Asher Gratt told the Camden New Journal:
People are living in fear because of these draconian decisions.
Referring to a recent conversation with a Holocaust survivor, he said:
He can’t sleep at night because of the fear of what will happen to him when he dies. This is someone who has gone through Auschwitz.
In his letter to Camden Council, Rabbi Gratt said:
St Pancras Coroner’s Court said Hassell could not comment publicly as it would be:
Other coroner offices, knowing of some religions’ obligations for prompt burials, demonstrate flexibility in prioritising these where possible, but Ms Hassell’s office seems to make a habit of delaying them, notwithstanding that she knows this causes immense anguish and trauma for relatives.
Incompatible with her judicial role.
A copy of a letter by Hassell, obtained by the Camden New Journal, states that she is “very familiar with the Jewish and Muslim religions’ teachings” and “always take these into account”.
There is a difference between being sensitive to faith wishes, and prioritising one person over another because of their religion. The coronial area of Inner North London contains the greatest concentration of Orthodox Jewish people in Europe, and the office of HM Coroner is here to serve that community, but not only that community.
Commenting on the CNJ report Anne-Marie Sullivan wrote:
I am deeply saddened to read this article. I lost my precious father in the most tragic of circumstances and as a result his remains were brought to St Pancras Coroner’s Court for a postmortem before an inquest took place. We are practising Catholics and it is not unusual in our faith for burials to take place within 2/3 days.
Although I have also read in the JC that this can be 2/3 weeks which is not factually correct. The point that seems to be missing is that the Coroner’s Court only investigates certain deaths, be it unsuspected or sudden. It often takes time to carry out the necessary investigation and although we waited three weeks until we could lay my father to rest we respected the law of the court and didn’t insist they hurry their tests.
We were treated with upmost respect by Mary Hassell and her brilliant team. I will never ever forget her professionalism, it’s the kind you don’t meet every day. ?I am of the opinion that no religion should have special privileges over another and furthermore I hope Mary Hassell remains in her post.
Alex Mo responded:
Thank you very much Anne-Marie for sharing your experience. I find unacceptable that some people are trying to bully such a great and respected professional. These types of analysis can take a long time, she is just applying the law as it should be, with the same standards to anyone.
But Ash Rahman came galloping to Hai’s defence:
Abdul Hai has been lobbying the government about the much needed reform to the coroner service for the past five years. We’re grateful to him for his energy and time. He cares for our community issues.
The coroner has been an obstacle to responding to the faith community needs. She has been a barrier to introducing the out of hours service. She doesn’t understand diversity and the Equality Act. I know the coroner’s approach has caused families unnecessary discomfort.
The inability of the Coroner’s service to respond to out-of-hours or weekend calls and enquiries has been a concern to me. This lack of a round-the-clock service particularly impacts upon members of the Muslim and Jewish communities when striving to bury the deceased as soon as possible after a death.
Coroners in other districts provide a flexible service to meet their faith community needs, however this coroner has no understanding of the diverse community.
The coroner continues to offend and shows disregards towards our faith communities. She is the problem and she should resign or move for this district.