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Senior judge criticises Islington coroner’s ‘cab-rank’ burials policy

First-come-first-served approach, which has outraged Jewish and Muslim families whose faiths require speedy burials, is described as ‘over-rigid’ despite wish to be fair

02 March, 2018 — By William McLennan

St Pancras coroner Mary Hassell is being taken to court by a Jewish charity

A SENIOR judge has said that the refusal by Islington’s coroner to prioritise the handling of religious burials was “not lawful”.

Speaking ahead of a High Court challenge, the Chief Coroner said that Mary Hassell’s use of a first-come-first-served pol­icy, which has outraged Jewish and Muslim families whose faiths require speedy burials, was “over-rigid”.

Ms Hassell, who oversees investigation into suspicious or unexplained deaths, is being taken to court by a Jewish charity, which has asked judges to review her so-called “cab rank” policy.

Ahead of the hearing later this month, Chief Coroner Judge Mark Lucraft QC filed his evidence with the High Court yesterday.

It states: “The Chief Coroner considers that the policy as formulated by the coroner is not lawful, even though it may have been produced in a sincere desire to be fair to all in her area.”

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 led to further hold-ups in releasing bodies to Jewish families.

MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry and council leader Richard Watts have expressed “serious concern” at the “unnecessary delays and barriers” to speedy burials on faith grounds.

Islington South MP Emily Thornberry has voiced concern at the policy of coroner Ms Hassell

In a letter to Adath Yisroel Burial Society at the time, Ms Hassell said that she would not prioritise any deaths on the basis of religion of the deceased or their family.

Lawyers for the Burial Society applied for a judicial review of the policy, which will be heard on March 27 at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Judge Lucraft’s statement said: “It is submitted that a coroner may properly address a reported death with greater urgency or prioritise some task on the ground that the bereaved family have a strong and sincere desire for the body to be released quickly grounded on religious belief.”

Asher Gratt, speaking on behalf of the Burial Society, said: “We hope this will lead to the end of the added sufferings and anguish of grieving relatives when facing bureaucracy and inflexible procedures that prevent the prompt burial of their loved ones.”

Trevor Asserson, who is representing the charity, said: “The support of the Chief Coroner is of huge importance. The Chief Coroner is a senior judge, and probably the most authoritative voice on coronial law in the UK.”

St Pancras Coroner’s Court has said Ms Hassell could not comment publicly as it would be “incompatible with her judicial role”.

However, a copy of a letter from Ms Hassell to the Burial Society, outlining her position, states: “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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