Coroner criticised over Jewish and Muslim burials

A senior coroner faces calls to resign over claims she caused “immense anguish and trauma” by mishandling burial requests from Muslim and Jewish families.

Mary Hassell, senior coroner for inner north London, was told to “step down or move to an area where she doesn’t have to deal with diversity”.

The call from Councillor Adbul Hai, a Labour cabinet member in Camden, comes after a years-long row over her refusal to prioritise families requesting swift burials and less invasive post-mortems for religious reasons.

Jewish and Islamic teachings advocate burial as soon as possible after death, often the same day, and some interpretations avoid autopsy.

Many Jews also observe a custom of watching over the deceased until they are interred – not currently possible in hospital mortuaries.

Families complained of days-long hold-ups, “invasive” post-mortems when there were other alternatives, and the refusal to let Jewish families use private mortuaries to “sit shiva”.

Ms Hassell’s jurisdiction takes in Tower Hamlets, Camden, Islington and Hackney – homes to sizeable Muslim and Jewish communities.

Cllr Hai said the coroner’s approach “beggared belief”, adding: “We live in the 21st century and the coroner’s office is a public service – but they are stuck in the dark ages.

“Mary fails to recognise that these are some of the most diverse communities in the whole country. The coroner’s service should reflect that.”

A Jewish burial society wrote to Camden Council last week also calling for Ms Hassell’s dismissal.

“The suffering and anguish caused by a delay in burial is hard to adequately express in writing, but it is widely and deeply felt,” the letter states, adding burial procedures had caused “immense anguish and trauma”.

Coroners’ guidelines from the Ministry of Justice state that “take account where possible of … traditions and religious requirements”.

In a letter to members of the Jewish community, Ms Hassell has written that “no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family, either by coroner’s officers or coroners”.

She has written that she is “acutely conscious” of Jewish and Muslim teachings and “always [takes] these into account but that “there is a difference between being sensitive to faith and prioritising one person over another because of their religion”.

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A judicial review in 2015 found Ms Hassell’s decision-making was “flawed” when she ordered a post-mortem against the wishes of a Jewish family when an electronic scan had determined the cause of death.

The Judicial Conduct Investigations Office said it is considering complaints against Ms Hassell.

Ms Hassell’s office has been contacted by the Standard for comment.

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