A burial society has made an official complaint against senior coroner Mary Hassell over her refusal to acknowledge Jewish religious requirements.
The Adath Yisrael Burial Society (AYBS) said it was also seeking a judicial review over Ms Hassell’s unwillingness to release bodies for swift burial, causing significant distress to bereaved families.
The move comes after AYBS challenged Ms Hassell, senior coroner of the St Pancras Coroner’s Court, for saying that “no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family”.
In a legal letter sent by representatives of the AYBS, Ms Hassell was told that unless she retracted this policy, which they described as “unlawful”, it would seek a judicial review.
But Ms Hassell has refused to retract. In a response to the AYBS, which has been seen by the JC, she wrote: “I do not agree that my protocol that no death reported to my office will be prioritised over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family is unlawful…
“There is a difference between being sensitive to faith wishes, and prioritising one person over another because of their religion.” She claimed that what she described as her “cab rank rule [meaning everyone waits their turn in line] is the fairest way”. Under both Jewish and Islamic law, the bodies of the deceased are required to be buried as quickly as possible after death, a requirement not shared by any other religious or ethnic group.
A spokesman for the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO), which looks into complaints against coroners, said: “The JCIO can confirm it has received complaints against Mary Hassell, the North London coroner. These will be considered in accordance with the Judicial Discipline (Prescribed Procedures) Regulations 2014.”
Councillor Abdul Hai, a cabinet member of Camden council, one of the boroughs under Ms Hassell’s juridiction, has confirmed that he is arranging a meeting this month with Sir Keir Starmer, Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras, to ask him to raise the issue with the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor, the two officers who have the authority to dismiss a coroner.
Ms Hassell has held the post of senior coroner since 2013. The boroughs under her authority — Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets, as well as Camden — include large Jewish and Muslim communities.
The AYBS has accused her of having “steadily and incrementally imposed rules and inflexible procedures primarily designed to benefit her officials while effectively reducing their service to the public”.
The latest dispute began after a Jewish man, Aharon Barzevski, passed away on October 21 last year.
Mr Barzevski’s body was still unavailable for burial by the afternoon of October 24, with the Coroner’s Court not having released it.
Ms Hassell had also insisted that the body be moved to a hospital mortuary rather than remain in a funeral home where Mr Barzevski’s family could observe the practice of shemirah, guarding a body before burial.
Ms Hassell contacted Jewish community representatives five days later, accusing them of having “bullied” members of her staff in an effort to expedite the burial process. She announced that she was withdrawing the protocol which had allowed religious Jews to observe shemirah.
In her latest letter to the AYBS, Ms Hassell wrote: “No family is less important to me than any other.
“If am able to accommodate any family wishes, be they founded in Judaism, Islam, Christianity or no religion at all, then I shall do my best to do so. However, I will not prioritise one at the expense of the other.
“Having spent a great deal of time considering how to deal with deaths that are reported to my office, I believe that the cab rank rule (meaning everyone waits their turn in line) is the fairest way.
“Sometimes two Jewish deaths are reported on the same day. The Orthodox Jew is not more worthy of my care than the non Orthodox. The Jew is not more worthy than the Muslim or Christian or atheist. All are important to me.
“In an entirely different matter, I was recently urged to remember that black lives matter. My response to that was of course they do. All lives matter.”
This is not the first time Ms Hassell’s actions regarding Jewish burials have been subject to a judicial review. In 2015 she lost a review brought by the family of an Orthodox Jewish woman who resisted an order by the senior coroner for an invasive autopsy.
A year later she was formally reprimanded by the JCIO for having publicised a letter in which she alleged she was being bullied by the Jewish community.