CamdenNewJournal

The independent London newspaper

Move to another area! Top councillor’s rage at coroner in burials row

Cabinet member: 'It would be better if she goes to work in an area that has less faith sensitivities'

11 January, 2018 — By William McLennan

A SENIOR Town Hall figure has called on Camden’s coroner to resign, following complaints from religious leaders who say she has caused “immense anguish and trauma” to bereaved families.

Councillor Abdul Hai, a Labour cabinet member, said Mary Hassell should leave her post at St Pancras Coroner’s Court and move to an area that has “less faith sensitivities”. Muslim and Jewish families have repeatedly criticised Ms 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.

Cllr 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.”

Mary Hassell

A Jewish burial society wrote to Camden Council last week asking for Ms Hassell to be dismissed. 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 Ms Hassell and the Jewish community were strained when she removed an agreement that bodies 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 Ms Hassell to court, alleging an abuse of power and unlawful discrimination.

Rabbi Asher Gratt told the New Journal last night: “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: “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.” St Pancras Coroner’s Court said Ms Hassell could not comment publicly as it would be “incompatible with her judicial role”.

A copy of a letter by Ms Hassell, obtained by the New Journal, states that she is “very familiar with the Jewish and Muslim religions’ teachings” and “always take these into account”. She added: “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.”

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