London Mayor Sadiq Khan has become the latest public figure to weigh into an increasingly fraught debate about a London coroner who refuses to fast-track cases for religious reasons.
Khan was asked about senior coroner Mary Hassell at a City Hall ceremony for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, after the Board of Deputies called for the Lord Chancellor to step in on Friday.
“When somebody dies, it’s extremely distressing,” said Khan. “Those who follow the Jewish and Islamic faith – it’s an important part of our beliefs and our culture to bury our loved one as soon as possible.”
The mayor said he “welcomed” the Board of Deputies writing to the Lord Chancellor, who alone has the power to dismiss Hassell, saying: “I’m hoping he will make sure that coroners appreciate the sensitivity around these issues.”
Khan added: “If there’s no good reason to delay the release of the body or if there’s no reason to have an invasive post-mortem, I think coroners should respect the wishes of the family and the community.”
Hassell, the senior coroner for Inner North London covering Hackney, Camden, Islington and Tottenham, has been the subject of concern from Orthodox leaders for years, but the Board’s intervention dramatically ramped up the pressure.
Hassell, from Wales, has drawn the ire of the religious Jewish community for saying she would not prioritise any religious group, leading to charges of “insensitivity”.
The Board’s vice president Marie Van Der Zyl, who attended what she described as “a deeply disappointing meeting” with Hassell on Friday, said the coroner “must go,” because of her “repeated failure to support bereaved Jewish and Muslim families”.
In an angry statement following the meeting alongside the Stamford Hill-based Adath Yisroel Burial Society, the Board said Hassell “showed little interest in addressing the Jewish community’s concerns in her work”.
The meeting had been called “to see whether steps could be taken to re-instil the Jewish community with confidence in her work,” said Van Der Zyl, because “the early release of bodies… is a fulfilment of the basic human rights of family life and religious practice”.
However, she said: “Not only is Ms Hassell failing to respect those rights, but she shows no inclination to do so, she has lost the confidence of the Jewish community, and appears to have no interest in winning it back.”
The Board said it would be writing to the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, David Gauke, and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, to request her removal from post.