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Jewish burial society launches bid to take senior coroner Mary Hassell to court over ‘faith deaths’ row

PUBLISHED: 15:27 25 January 2018 | UPDATED: 14:37 26 January 2018

Mary Hassell has been senior coroner for north London since 2013

Mary Hassell has been senior coroner for north London since 2013

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An Orthodox Jewish charity today applied to take senior north London coroner Mary Hassell to court over her controversial decision to stop prioritising religious burials.

If successful, it will spark a judicial review that could see the move reversed. It comes as a string of high-profile politicians and faith leaders have called for her resignation.

Ms Hassell – whose remit covers Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Islington and Camden – has come under intense criticism in recent weeks from local Jewish and Muslim communities over the decision.

Under Jewish and Islamic law, bodies must be buried on the day of death or as soon as possible afterwards. Both faiths also view invasive post-mortems as desecration, preferring CT body scans.

Relations between the coroner’s office and faith representatives broke down in October over a decision by Ms Hassell to withdraw special burial arrangements that were struck three years ago.

Ms Hassell agreed in January 2015 that most Jewish people who die at home in north London could be immediately sent to the Carmel Funeral Home in Stamford Hill instead of going to a public mortuary as is standard. But the arrangement was cancelled in October after a row broke out about delays dealing with a man who had died of natural causes.

Ms Hassell claimed the society made persistent requests to one of her officers for a post mortem to be carried out the next working day, but that staffing issues meant this could not happen.

The application is being brought by the Adath Yisroel Burial Society (AYBS) in Stamford Hill, and is supported by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who have called for Ms Hassell to be removed from office, and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

Rabbi Asher Gratt of the AYBS, bringing the claim, said: “Mary Hassell’s conduct is having a devastating effect on members of the Jewish and Muslim Communities who are being put through great anguish by her – suffering the distress of not being permitted to bury their loved ones in the dignity they deserve according to our tradition and belief.

“She has alienated the communities she is meant to serve and we are left with no option but to seek that she be transferred to a less diverse area.”

The AYBS denied leaving the coroner’s officer feeling “persecuted” with its repeated phone calls and e-mails, and said had they known the coroner was dealing with another faith death they would have accepted the situation.

Asher said: “As far as I am aware the AYBS volunteers would always speak with the coroner and coroner’s officers in an even-handed and calm manner.

“However, where it is felt necessary, in order to enable someone to be buried quickly, we will try to make sure that all reasonable efforts to achieve that are made, either by phoning the coroner’s office ourselves or instructing our solicitors to take appropriate steps, which does not amount to bullying.”

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