The controversial north London coroner who sparked a government review
- Credit: Archant
July was a bad month for Mary Hassell.
The senior coroner for inner north London lost her third High Court battle with Jewish families in the space of 12 months and discovered the government is looking at introducing out-of-hours coroner services nationally, an idea she has flatly refused to entertain for the past two years in north London.
Ms Hassell’s opposition to calls for an out-of-hours service in her jurisdiction has been so vociferous that justice secretary Michael Gove recently intervened to question the coroner’s uncompromising stance.
In June, Mr Gove met with solicitor Trevor Asserson, who has represented several bereaved families who have had dealings with Ms Hassell, and Cllr Abdul Hai, Camden Council’s cabinet member for communities, to discuss the desperate concerns in Muslim and Jewish communities about Ms Hassell’s conduct.
It was following this meeting, also attended by justice minister Caroline Dinenage, that the Ministry of Justice announced a full review of out-of-hours coroner services in England and Wales.
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“At the meeting, I spoke to Mr Gove for five or 10 minutes explaining the problem with Ms Hassell,” said Mr Asserson. “He just asked in amazement, ‘Why on Earth is she behaving in this way?’”
Since taking over as the coroner in charge of deaths in Camden, Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets in May 2013, Ms Hassell, previously coroner for Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, has refused to make herself available for religious families whose relatives have died outside of the coroner’s usual weekday working hours.
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For Muslims and Jews, the swift burial of the deceased is paramount but currently in inner north London, without an out-of-hours service, if a Jew or Muslim dies on a Friday night and requires the coroner’s service, their family cannot expect to bury them until Monday at the earliest.
But it has not always been this way. Before Ms Hassell was appointed, interim coroner Dr Shirley Radcliffe had a far more flexible approach.
Cllr Hai explained: “She understood the religious and cultural needs of families. She was flexible and made herself available out-of-hours when it was required.”
Mr Asserson said: “Most coroners around England offer the out of hours service for free as a matter of course. They make themselves available on email and telephone for those few occasions when a religious person wants a quick decision.
“It’s a phone call to release the body to the pathologist and another call to release the body for burial, which can be done in five or 10 minutes.
“It’s very, very minimal. It’s not suggesting that the whole coronial service should be up and running 24 hours over the weekend. That’s what this fuss is about.”
The other major grievance with Ms Hassell is her objection to non-invasive post-mortems, a crucial alternative to invasive autopsies for those Jewish and Muslim families whose relatives require tests to determine their cause of death.
In Judaism and Islam, the invasion of a dead body is generally forbidden. The development of scanning equipment now means invasive autopsies are often not required.
But Ms Hassell’s insistence on carrying out invasive autopsies has landed her in hot water.
In the past 12 months, Mr Asserson has had to provide emergency legal assistance to three Orthodox Jewish families to stop Ms Hassell carrying out an invasive autopsy on their relatives when a scan would suffice.
The first case involved Rabbi Mordechai Weiss, 73, who was visiting a nephew in Hackney from Israel when he fell down some stairs.
He died in hospital on July 9 last year from head injuries and Ms Hassell ordered an invasive autopsy, which Rabbi Weiss’s family opposed.
The family obtained a High Court injunction stopping the autopsy and a CT scan was used to determine the cause of death.
The second case involved Sarlotta Rotsztein, 86, an Orthodox Jew, who died at the Royal Free Hospital on September 29 last year.
Ms Hassell ordered an invasive autopsy after receiving conflicting opinion on the exact cause of death, despite opposition from the family.
Mrs Rotsztein’s family obtained an emergency injunction stopping the autopsy and her body subsequently underwent a scan which identified the cause of death. The family then instructed Mr Asserson to bring a judicial review of Ms Hassell’s conduct.
Ms Hassell was confronted again by Mr Asserson following the death of Moses Grunfeld, 19, an Orthodox Jewish student, who drowned in Hampstead Heath’s men’s pond on April 15.
He had been visiting his mother in Stoke Newington from university in New York, USA.
Ms Hassell ordered an invasive autopsy on Mr Grunfeld’s body despite objections from the family and only allowed a scan instead after Mr Asserson threatened legal action to stop the autopsy.
On July 28, Ms Hassell’s decision to order an autopsy on Mrs Rotzstein, despite the family’s religious objections, was deemed unlawful and in breach of the family’s human rights after a judicial review, in what was a landmark ruling.
Ms Hassell’s legal battles are believed to have cost the inner north London councils around £250,000.
“She is failing to provide a good service to the public,” said Mr Asserson. “That’s where I feel she has really let down the coronial service.”
Ms Hassell did not wish to comment in response when approached by the Ham&High.
A spokesman said it would be “incompatible with her judicial role” to make a comment.