I was ‘completely wrong’ over religious burials, says coroner
High Court challenge helped end 'cab rank' policy at St Pancras Coroner's Court
12 July, 2018 — By William McLennan
A CORONER who was told by the High Court that she was unlawfully discriminating against Jewish and Muslim families has admitted that she “got it completely wrong” and appealed for help to develop a new policy for prioritising burials.
Senior coroner Mary Hassell said that her controversial “cab-rank” policy – which saw deaths treated on a first-come, first-served basis – was intended to treat everybody equally, but had backfired.
Both Islam and Judaism require speedy burials and the chronological approach meant that some families experienced agonising delays waiting for bodies to be released by the coroner’s office.
Speaking publicly for the first time during a consultation meeting at Camden Town Hall on Thursday, to a room filled with many of those who had been enraged by her approach, Ms Hassell said: “For sure I got it wrong. I got it completely wrong. What I’m here for is to ask for your help. I’m asking you to help me to be the best coroner I can be and to provide the best service.”
Describing how the policy came about, she said that a previous agreement with a Jewish burial society in east London meant “unfairness had crept in”.
“Deaths where the burial society were involved were being prioritised above other deaths,” said Ms Hassell. She said that on one occasion a Muslim father had been waiting in hospital for his child’s body to be released for burial, while she was busy dealing with a case involving the society.
“I decided that this was a situation that couldn’t continue,” said Ms Hassell. “To be honest, I felt mortified. I felt that I had allowed a system of unfairness to grow up. I felt that I was responsible. I decided that everybody should be dealt with in chronological order.”
Ruling the policy unlawful in April, following an appeal by Adath Yisrael Burial Society, Lord Justice Singh had said: “To treat everyone in the same way is not necessarily to treat them equally. Uniformity is not the same thing as equality.”
Ms Hassell was accused by audience members of seeking to divide communities within north London with her justification, but she was adamant that was not the case. “I’m sorry that you thought I was being divisive,” she told the meeting. “I gave you the description of my thinking because I wanted you to understand how I came to get it so wrong, but I accept wholeheartedly that I got it wrong.”
Labour cabinet councillor Abdul Hai called for a “more flexible service”, adding that introducing a new “rigid protocol” would lead to the same problems being repeated. He instead called for the coroner to use her discretion. “I think what you need is some common sense,” he said. “Both Jewish and Muslim communities, along with other communities, are simply asking for you to make sure those needs are taken into account.”
Describing the approach that has been taken since the High Court’s intervention, Ms Hassell said: “What I have been doing is looking at organ donation and then homicide and then considering anybody who has asked for prioritisation.”
She said she then looks at “anybody who might want it but they haven’t articulated it”, in part by looking at names that appear to be Jewish or Muslim.
Labour councillor Jonathan Simpson said: “Simpson isn’t a particularly Jewish name, but I am Jewish. You can’t really look at a name and simply that it would articulate someone’s faith and I think it’s a little bit of a clumsy and quite callous way of approaching things.” He said that a “published policy” was needed.