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Mary Hassell: Coroner gives apology and issues plea for help drafting new policy at packed meeting

PUBLISHED: 13:20 06 July 2018 | UPDATED: 13:48 06 July 2018

Camden Town Hall's council chamber is packed for the public meeting with Senior coroner Mary Hassell. Picture: Polly Hancock

Camden Town Hall's council chamber is packed for the public meeting with Senior coroner Mary Hassell. Picture: Polly Hancock

Archant

“I got it wrong. I got it completely wrong. I’m so sorry.”

Coroner Mary Hassell... slammed by critics as dogmatic over religious burials. Picture: Polly HancockCoroner Mary Hassell... slammed by critics as dogmatic over religious burials. Picture: Polly Hancock

In the five stages of grief, under-fire coroner Mary Hassell seems to have worked through denial, anger, and bargaining to reach acceptance, which came at an a febrile public meeting at Camden Town Hall last night.

But her humility didn’t get the same response from her audience of 80 people last night, where she was accused of trying to “divide the Muslim and Jewish communities” – and of wasting public money.

The meeting was called as Ms Hassell is about to draw up a policy for dealing with deaths in inner north London over the next few months.

The chief coroner, who oversees all coroners’ offices and practices in England and Wales, has advised her to draw up a formal policy “to show a departure from the previous system”.

Rabbi Asher Gratt of the Adath Yisroel Burial Society at the meeting. Picture: Polly HancockRabbi Asher Gratt of the Adath Yisroel Burial Society at the meeting. Picture: Polly Hancock

But yesterday’s meeting heard how an organised effort by faith communities had seen 1,200 people send in written statements saying they don’t want a fixed policy.

She told the meeting the revoked system had evolved over her time as senior coroner for inner north London: “I feel I had let a system of unfairness to grow up.”

Since she lost the judicial review brought against her by Stamford Hill’s Adath Yisroel Burial Society, she has been prioritising her case load each morning in a triage session.

After she looks at deaths involving organ donations and homicides first, she is then considering people of religious faith and children for priority.

However, she told the meeting her current method of assessing which deaths should be prioritised on a faith level was “whether the deceased has a Jewish or Muslim” name.

This was then criticised by Camden councillor Jonathan Simpson, who said some people may not be able to tell from his name that he’s Jewish, and there needed to be a better way of doing it.

Rabbi Asher Gratt, who led the action against Ms Hassell on behalf of AYBS, suggested a method of telling the coroner the family wanted a death prioritised.

“Perhaps they could put a box on a form, or could write the letter P on it, to say they want them prioritised.”

However, Zoe Rhodes said she was worried people being prioritised because of their faith might mean other people get sidelined as a result.

“I completely understand and respect that some people, because of their religion, might want to be prioritised. But I’m not religious, and if somebody I knew died and was put at the back of the queue, when would they be dealt with?

“Where you’re consulting with faith groups, that means others don’t get a voice.

“I agree with how it’s currently being done since the judicial review, and think that’s the right way.”

However, in her approach of asking the meeting how she could prioritise deaths if one Jewish person and one Muslim person died, she was accused of trying to divide the two communities.

She was also criticised for allegedly not taking funding that has been allocated for an out-of-hours service.

People of both faiths have raised their unhappiness that deaths are not able to be signed off over the weekend, or Bank Holidays – leading to delays in burials.

Hackney councillor Harvey Odze said: “Camden has put on the table £80,000 of funding for an out-of-hours service. Why has she not taken it?”

Ms Hassell said she wasn’t aware of the funding.

She also said Camden had said it wasn’t able to pay for a new scanner to do non-invasive post-mortems, and currently has to wait until hospitals in the area have finished using theirs for the day.

However, she is hopeful inner north London will be able to make use of a new scanner that is being built in Walthamstow.

The first draft of the new policy is set to be drawn up over the next month.

It will then be submitted to the chief coroner for his input, before three more drafts and the invitation for the public to comment.

Ms Hassell ended the meeting with an appeal for people to work with her.

“I’m really sorry that I haven’t provided the service that you want,” she said.

“I’m not perfect, and I’m trying. We will be able to improve this service if you help me.”

What do you think? E-mail your opinions to harry.taylor@archant.co.uk – the best could end up on our letters page.

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