“Quis custodiet ipsos custodies” — “who will guard the guards?”
Over the past few weeks, the JC has run a number of stories on Mary Hassell, senior coroner for St Pancras Coroner’s Court, which has jurisdiction over four London councils.
Ms Hassell’s statement that “no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family” has prompted significant concern among the Jewish community living in areas she has authortiy over.
Her policy is a problem not just for Jews, but for Muslims too — both groups are required to bury their dead as soon as possible.
She is also said to have ignored a protocol which allowed Jewish bodies to be guarded before burial — another requirement within Judaism.
According to the legal representatives of the Adath Yisroel Burial Society (AYBS), these measures are “unlawful”. The JC has called for her removal and the AYBS, which is at the end of its tether, also wants her to be dismissed
But the JC’s search for an answer to the question of who has the power to dismiss a senior coroner illustrates the difficulty in holding Ms Hassell to account.
Local councils get a say in deciding on the appointment of a senior coroner. But once hired, if that coroner does not prove to be up to the standard required, no council has the power to dismiss them.
What about the Chief Coroner for England and Wales, who is head of the coroner system and provides national leadership for coroners? The post is currently held by Judge Mark Lucraft QC.
In a statement to the JC, Judge Lucraft’s office said that “the Chief Coroner does not have any power in relation to disciplining or removing coroners from office. That power rests with the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor.”
The Lord Chief Justice is head of the judiciary — since last October, the role has been held by Lord Burnett of Maldon. The Lord Chancellor is a member of the government, with a cabinet position — currently David Lidington MP, who is also the Justice Secretary.
Any decision by them to remove a coroner would only occur after an investigation by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office.
According to the JCIO, any official complaint against a coroner has to be made within three months of an incident. The JCIO confirms that it “may investigate a coroner’s behaviour following any complaint or complaints” submitted to them. “If the complaint is upheld it is for the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice to consider what sanction is necessary.
“Following an investigation which results in the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice finding that misconduct has occurred, the decision as to the appropriate sanction (including dismissal) is a matter for them to decide jointly.”
The JCIO said as yet it had “not received any complaints in relation to the issues raised” regarding Ms Hassell.
Research by the JC failed to find a previous example of a senior coroner being dismissed in such a way.
A coroner for Bradford resigned in the middle of a JCIO investigation into his conduct 2014.
In 2012, assistant coroner Suzanne Greenaway, who presided in the Amy Winehouse case, resigned after it emerged she did not have the appropriate qualifications. Coroners must be lawyers registered in the UK for five years, which Ms Greenaway was not.
Ms Hassell received a reprimand from the JCIO in 2016 concerning another case involving the Jewish community, but the matter was clearly not seen to be serious enough to warrant dismissal.