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Jewish society calls for removal of London coroner over burial delay

Coroner Mary Hassell
Coroner Mary Hassell cited ‘insufficient resources’ and staff shortages as causes of delays. Photograph: Wales news service

A Jewish burial service has called for a senior London coroner to be removed after accusing her of causing “anguish and trauma” by bureaucratic delays in a dispute over religious rules for the dead.

The service has made an official complaint against Mary Hassell, senior coroner for inner north London, saying “many of her imposed rules, bureaucracy, inflexibility and unnecessary delays offend traditional and/or religious practices”.

The move came after Hassell said “no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family”. She has also suggested members of her staff have been “bullied or intimidated” by Jewish community representatives.

The Adath Yisrael Burial Society (AYBS) will demand a judicial review this month unless the coroner retracts her new protocol. Its lawyers said the policy “amounts to a blanket and disproportionate refusal” to respect religious beliefs that require speedy burial.

Hassell deals with deaths across north-east London, including Hackney, the biggest concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Europe, and Tower Hamlets, the UK’s biggest Muslim community. She took up the post in 2013, and was previously coroner for Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan.

Under Jewish law, the dead should be buried as soon as possible, preferably on the day of death, and should be “guarded”, or prayed over, from death until burial. Bodies should be buried intact, without autopsy, wherever possible.

Islamic law also says the dead should be buried as swiftly as possible, and views autopsies as desecration.

The dispute arose over the death of a Jewish man, Aharon Barzevski, 43, on Saturday 21 October last year, details of which are contained in correspondence seen by the Guardian.

Asserson Law Offices, which represents relatives of the deceased and the AYBS, wrote to Hassell three days after Barzevski died, raising concerns about when the body would be released by the coroner for burial. Asserson complained that no out-of-hours service had been available over the weekend, and two days after the death there were still delays in ordering a non-invasive CT scan to determine whether an autopsy was needed.

Replying to Asserson a week later, Hassell referred to “insufficient resources” and staff shortages. She added that a member of her staff had “felt persecuted by the way you and the rabbis treated her. That is a strong word, but that is the word she used to me.”

Hassell wrote: “I have received complaints in a similar vein from my other officers and from the mortuary manager … My team have a right not to be bullied or intimidated at work.”

She announced a new protocol, the main point being that no death would be prioritised by the coroner’s office on religious grounds. She also revoked an arrangement to transfer bodies to a secure Jewish funeral home while awaiting release, rather than keeping them in a public mortuary, to allow “guarding” by family members and the community.

Asher Gratt of the AYBS said Hassell had caused “immense anguish, stress and trauma” to bereaved members of the community. “We have full respect for others who want a quick burial. But most families in the UK prefer to take some time before the closure of a funeral. For Jews, mourning cannot start until after burial.”

He denied that community members had bullied the coroner’s staff, but acknowledged that relatives had sometimes been “forced to make multiple phone calls at a time when they are desperate and so may become frustrated”.

Other recent cases cited in the Jewish media include a woman who made 210 calls to the coroner’s office before being permitted to bury her father on 24 December, four days after he died, and another family who was told it would take two weeks to conduct an autopsy before a funeral could be held.

Trevor Asserson of Asserson said: “Mary Hassell appears to show such total disregard for people of faith and such ignorance of the law that she seems entirely unsuited to her position.”

The law firm cited Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to practise one’s religion or beliefs subject only to legal limitations to protect public safety and order, and the rights and freedoms of others.

Hassell’s office said she was unable to comment. However, her most recent letter to Asserson said her new protocol was not unlawful, adding: “I believe the cab rank rule is the fairest way.”

The Judicial Conduct Investigations Office confirmed it had “received complaints against Mary Hassell, the north London coroner. These will be considered in accordance with the Judicial Discipline (Prescribed Procedures) Regulations 2014.”

This article titled "Jewish society calls for removal of London coroner over burial delay" was written by Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent, for The Guardian on Sunday 14 January 2018 07.00am

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