The under-fire Inner North London Coroner Mary Hassell has kicked off a consultation about how best to prioritise the release of bodies for burial by suggesting that “well-organised” Jewish community groups led to problems.
In a public meeting she called late last week, Hassell said she felt compelled to draft her infamous “cab-rank rule” policy – now deemed unlawful – after problems with the Adass Yisroel Burial Society led to a delay in releasing a Muslim child’s body.
She was criticised for seeking to “divide communities” after describing how she had to deal with the burial society, which successfully challenged her policy in the High Court, while a Muslim father waited all day in hospital for his son’s body.
Addressing families and community representatives, she said not all families were represented by community groups who were familiar with the coroner system, and that this had led to a system of unfairness.
“What I found was that because the Adass Yisroel Burial Society is very well organised and trying to represent its members to the best of its ability, deaths where the burial society was involved were being prioritised over other deaths.
“It went on for quite a long time before I decided that it was inappropriate for it to continue. My officers spoke to me about it several times and said they felt unfairness had crept in. This was nobody’s intention. It had just grown up that way.”
She said “the last event that really made up my mind” was one evening after court when she came to the reported death of a Muslim child who had died in the morning.
She said: “Generally speaking I would have dealt with this at lunchtime” because the child had not needed any further investigation and “I knew the family were Muslim, that this was particularly important to them”.
However, she said: “When I came out of court in the morning, then at lunchtime, then when the court closed at 4.30pm, I was dealing with a Jewish death, and the family was represented by the burial society.
“When I got to this child’s death at 6.30pm and realised this child’s father had waited all day in hospital, going home without his child, and that actually he could have been given news and his child’s body released at lunchtime, I decided this was a situation that couldn’t continue. To be honest, I felt mortified. I felt that I had allowed a system of unfairness to grow up.”
However, during an often stormy meeting, she was accused of playing faith groups off against each other, with one member of the public accusing her of “seeking to set off one group against another”.
He said: “It’s the well-represented Jews, represented by the burial society, and the hapless Muslim father, waiting at the hospital. And that is extremely divisive.
“We do not want to be divided. We are a united community. So please understand the needs of that community.”
The High Court advised Hassell that she could draft a new protocol, and Hassell said the Chief Coroner agreed that this was a good idea, “because it demonstrates a departure from the previous protocol”. She said: “I think it is reasonable for you all to know the basis on which we make decisions, so that’s why we’re here.”
However Jewish and Muslim community groups argued that a new written formula was unnecessary because common sense should prevail in each individual situation. They also want Hassell to introduce an out-of-hours service, which was withdrawn over concerns about reduced financial resources.