A community figure who has knowledge of how coroners around the UK operate says that those who work in areas with significant Jewish populations are all “extremely helpful” when it comes to accommodating faith requirements — with one exception.
Mary Hassell, of the St Pancras Coroner’s Court, is that exception.
The figure, who does not wish to be named, says coroners in London make themselves available to the Jewish community at any time, should there be an urgent need for their services.
He has particular praise for Andrew Walker of the Northern District of Greater London (covering the London boroughs of Barnet, Brent, Enfield, Haringey and Harrow); Fiona Wilcox of Inner West London (Wandsworth, Merton, Kensington and Chelsea and the City of Westminster) and Nadia Persaud of the East London court (Waltham Forest, Newham, Redbridge, Havering and Barking & Dagenham).
He also commends Alison Hewitt of the City of London (which covers Barts hospital, where heart patients are often taken).
The four senior coroners responsible for Manchester are “most helpful… available 24 hours a day for both the Jewish and Muslim communities.”
Other senior coroners who are lauded include those responsible for Hertfordshire and Bournemouth.
All the senior coroners have given their personal contact details to representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities requiring speedy burial, so that they can be called upon to help expedite the burial process.
However, referring to Ms Hassell, the figure has a very different take: “There is one coroner who is completely unhelpful, who covers the bulk of the [strictly] Orthodox Jewish community, and a very orthodox Muslim community in Tower Hamlets.
“She has the ‘cab rank rule’ — first come, first served. And there is no way of contacting her out of hours.”
By contrast, the court for the Northern District of Greater London, also known as the North London Coroner’s Court — which has the largest number of Jews in the country — is described in glowing terms.
“If we have someone on a Sunday who has passed away over the weekend, and [his family] wants to take him to Israel, you need to have an out of England certificate.
“With Mary Hassell, you’d have to fax it through to her office on Monday morning and hope that on Monday — or, more than likely, Tuesday — she will sign it, send it back and off you go.
“With the Barnet coroner [Andrew Walker] it can be done on a Sunday. He’s available by email or by phone and we will get the necessary paperwork on a Sunday.”
It is emphasised that the service provided by the Northern District of Greater London court is “not just for the Jewish community. The speed is for any person who has to have an immediate burial.
“A Roman Catholic, for example — although they normally wait two or three weeks, if they ring up and say, ‘we’re going on holiday, can you please look at the file straightaway’, they [the North London coroner’s court] will.
“They are there to help the community that they serve.”
The figure recalls one incident involving Ms Hassell’s office, where a post-mortem had to be performed on a Friday afternoon in winter, due to an inconclusive scan result. The post-mortem was finished at around 3.10pm at the Royal London Hospital, which is under the jurisdiction of the St Pancras Coroner’s Court — 40 minutes before Shabbat was due to come in. “We asked the coroner’s office for a burial order [saying], ‘you know there’s a post-mortem which has taken place, at least give a burial order so that we can bury the fellow on Sunday.’
“‘Sorry [the office responded]. Can’t do it.’
“We faxed through the result to the Coroner’s Court and then nothing happened until Monday morning. For a two-minute signature.”
The official policy of the St Pancras Court under Ms Hassell, as stated by the senior coroner herself, is that“no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family”.
By contrast, a source within the North London Coroner’s Court told the JC that its policy was to give every assistance to any faith community that has specific burial requirements.
If it coroners could speed up the process for any faith group, they would — not just for the Jewish community, but the Muslim community, or anyone else who requires a speedy burial for reasons of faith.
The source added that they could not see a circumstance where a service to a faith group who had particular requirements would be limited, insisting it would not be the way the court would treat such a group.