The latest installment of an ongoing saga, which has caused much distress to Jewish families in North London, has seen a coroner announcing, “no death will be prioritized in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family.”
Mary Hassell, the senior coroner at St. Pancras coroner’s office, whose area of jurisdiction includes Stamford Hill, has come into conflict with the kehillah there, and with the local Muslim community, on a number of occasions since her appointment in 2012. Over the years, she has tried to insist on invasive autopsies when the family have offered to pay for non-invasive alternatives, which could be performed more quickly; and ignored pleas from both communities to make herself, or a staff member, available to process the paperwork out of hours, allowing for speedy burial.
In 2016, she was formally reprimanded by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office, following complaints by members of the kehillah. In 2015, her decisions were successfully challenged in the High Court, where injunctions were served against her and in Judicial Review, where she was found to have acted unlawfully and ordered to pay costs.
In the last few weeks, Ms. Hassell has caused significant delay to two Jewish burials. The JC reports that a bereaved family had to cancel levayos on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, since they were unable to get the niftar released. They eventually managing to conduct the levayah on the Sunday, following the intervention of the hospital authorities. In another case, a family were told that it would take at least two weeks for an autopsy to take place. When the bereaved family reported this to the JC, they contacted the coroner’s office, who suddenly decided that it could take place within the next 24 hours.
The government is fully aware of the need for quick burials in both Jewish and Muslim law. In 2015, Simon Hughes, the then justice minister, committed to providing out-of-hours services, particularly in areas with large Jewish or Muslim populations. The problem for the kehillah is particularly acute in the winter holiday season when there are few hours of daylight for conducting levayos, and a number of public holidays. However, the Annual Report of the Chief Coroner for 2016-2017, merely says that he “continues to work with faith communities…to try and comply with…religious requirements…[such as] early burial.” No specific provisions are laid out.
Trevor Asserson, the lawyer representing the Adath Yisroel Burial Society (AYBS) in Stamford Hill has written to Ms. Hassel, describing her policy as ‘unlawful.’ He said that “It amounts to a blanket and disproportionate refusal, in the exercise of your statutory powers, to respect the religious beliefs of those within your jurisdiction, including Jewish and Muslim people, whose religious beliefs require speedy burial following death.”
Ms. Hassell has also revoked the existing protocol on where a mes will be kept while awaiting kevurah. Previously, she had allowed Jewish people to be kept at the Carmel burial home in Stamford Hill, which enabled shemirah to be practiced. However, in an exchange of letters with the AYBS, she has apparently said that this will no longer be possible and that Jewish people “will now go to the mortuary as everyone else does…until the coroner makes the decision to release to the family.” The circumstances in the mortuary do not permit shemirah.