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Coroner says she got it wrong on ‘cab-rank’ burials

Mary Hassell’s critics are asked to help ‘provide the best service’

13 July, 2018 — By William McLennan

Mary Hassell told critics: ‘I’m sorry that you thought I was being divisive’

A CORONER who was told by the High Court that she was unlawfully discriminating against Jewish and Muslim families has admitted that she “got it completely wrong” and has appealed for help to develop a new policy for prioritising burials.

Senior coroner Mary Hassell said that her controversial “cab-rank” policy – with deaths treated on a first-come, first-served basis – was intended to treat everybody equally, but had backfired.

The St Pancras coroner deals with deaths in Islington and three other boroughs.

Both Islam and Judaism require speedy burials. A chronological approach meant that some families experienced agonising delays waiting for bodies to be released by the coroner’s office.

Speaking publicly for the first time during a consultation meeting at Camden town hall on Thursday – to a room filled with many of those who had been enraged by her approach – Ms Hassell said: “For sure, I got it wrong. I got it completely wrong. What I’m here for is to ask for your help. I’m asking you to help me to be the best coroner I can be and to provide the best service.”

Describing how the policy came about, she said that a previous agreement with a Jewish burial society in east London meant “unfairness had crept in”. “Deaths where the burial society were involved were being prioritised above other deaths,” said Ms Hassell.

She said that on one occasion a Muslim father had been waiting in hospital for his child’s body to be released for burial, while she was busy dealing with a case involving the society.

“I decided that this was a situation that couldn’t continue,” said Ms Hassell. “To be honest, I felt mortified. I felt I had allowed a system of unfair­ness to grow up. I felt that I was responsible. I decided that everybody should be dealt with in chronological order.”

Ruling the policy unlaw­ful in April, following an appeal by Adath Yisrael Burial Society, Lord Justice Singh had said: “To treat everyone in the same way is not necessarily to treat them equally. Uniformity is not the same thing as equality.”

Ms Hassell was accus­ed by audience members of seeking to divide communities in north London with her justification, but she was adamant that was not the case.

“I’m sorry that you thought I was being divisive,” she told the meeting. “I gave you the description of my thinking because I wanted you to understand how I came to get it so wrong, but I accept wholeheartedly that I got it wrong.”

Camden Labour councillor Abdul Hai called for a “more flexible service”, adding that introducing a new “rigid protocol” would lead to the same problems being repeated. Instead, he called for the coroner to use her discretion. “I think what you need is some common sense,” he said.

“Both Jewish and Muslim communities, along with other communities, are simply asking for you to make sure those needs are taken into account.”

Describing the approach that has been taken since the High Court’s intervention, Ms Hassell said: “What I have been doing is looking at organ donation and then homicide and then considering anybody who has asked for prioritisation.”

She said she then looks at “anybody who might want it but they haven’t articulated it”, in part by looking at names that appear to be Jewish or Muslim.

Camden councillor Jonathan Simpson said: “Simpson isn’t a particularly Jewish name, but I am Jewish. You can’t really look at a name and simply think that it would articulate someone’s faith. I think it’s a little bit of a clumsy and quite callous way of approaching things.”

He said that a “published policy” was needed.

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