Judges prepare to rule on burials row as families tell us: Coroner is cold-hearted

General view of the High Court on the Strand, London.

General view of the High Court on the Strand, London. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

With judges poised to make a ruling after last week’s judicial review, Harry Taylor looks back at the dispute between Mary Hassell and north London’s faith communities –and speaks to the families affected by her ‘cab-rank’ system

St Pancras Coroner's Court Photo by: Stephen Evans

St Pancras Coroner's Court Photo by: Stephen Evans - Credit: Stephen Evans

A woman from one of the families who have had burials delayed by north London senior coroner Mary Hassell has condemned her as “cold hearted” and “without any feeling.”

Helen Langberg is one of two people we have spoken to, as Jewish and Muslim communities await the decision of last week’s judicial review into Mary Hassell’s cab-rank system for burials.

“She is an unmarried woman without feeling,” she said, “a woman with a cold heart. I don’t think it’s because she’s anti-Semitic but she has no human feeling at all.”

The agreement for special treatment of deaths and burials was withdrawn in October last year.

The Adath Yisroel Burial Society's building, perched on the edge of Cissold Park in Islington. They

The Adath Yisroel Burial Society's building, perched on the edge of Cissold Park in Islington. They brought the judicial review against Mary Hassell for her first-come, first-served approach to burials - Credit: Harry Taylor

With the withdrawal of the agreement, Ms Hassell has since implemented a first-come, first-served basis of dealing with deaths in the inner north London region, known as a “cab-rank” system.

Her remit covers Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Camden. Figures released in March show more than £240,000 has been spent fighting judicial reviews against Ms Hassell. This doesn’t include the money spent on the current legal battle.

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The issue was brought before a two-day judicial review last week, where England and Wales’ chief coroner Mark Lucraft QC said her approach was “not lawful,” and “over rigid.”

But he did say his opinion wasn’t a criticism of Ms Hassell, and that her new policy may have been a “genuine intention” to be fair to everyone in her area.

Mary Hassell initially declined to make a statement to the court, but later U-turned and gave a speech at the end of proceedings. Solicitors Asserson, acting on behalf of AYBS, applied for her evidence to be struck out on grounds it was outside the designated period.

In her speech, Ms Hassell is believed to have repeated the reasons for her approach, including a lack of resources.

Speaking afterwards, Trevor Asserson said a presiding judge recognised the case’s prominence: “Lord Justice Singh said the case was important and said his mind was not yet made up.”

One of the families affected by Ms Hassell’s new system has spoken about the upset caused when his father’s funeral was delayed because of a delay in releasing his body. When Mohammed Haji’s father, Yusuf, died in October last year, the family were made to wait for five days before Ms Hassell agreed to release his body for the funeral.

“We wanted my father to have a scan, which is non-invasive, but they said the person who could do it was on holiday.”

Mr Haji said Ms Hassell instead ordered an invasive post-mortem against the family’s wishes.

He also criticised the coroner’s poor communication with families: “She never spoke directly to us. It was her secretary on the phone instead.”

For Mr Haji, the damage done by the delays meant the grieving process was more difficult.

“It was very upsetting for family and relatives, with the funeral being delayed. It is painful to have unnecessary delays.”

Mrs Langberg, of Spring Hill in Stamford Hill, has also experienced the effects of Ms Hassell’s cab-rank policy.

The system was in place during the winter of 2015, before the newer agreement came in, when Ms Langberg’s brother and brother-in-law died in the space of two months. She described the “anguish” she went through when Ms Hassell was handling their deaths.

Her brother had died at 76 from an aneurism. “He died on a Thursday and he was taken to hospital, because they weren’t sure what the causes were,” she said. The family got the results 20 minutes before the coroner’s office was due to close on a Friday afternoon, but it had shut early.

They then faced a further two-day wait over the weekend, because neither Ms Hassell nor any of her staff were available to sign the release for his body.

“Everything was done but we couldn’t get a signature.”

It was only when Mrs Langberg went to the coroner’s office early the following Monday that she was able to get a signature for the body to be released, meaning the funeral could take place. However the delay added to the grieving process, she said.

“It was very troublesome and upsetting. Everybody was suffering with us. The delay meant more people turned up to the funeral because they knew what we had been going through.”

The judges overseeing last week’s judicial review are set to provide a ruling later this month. Both Mrs Langberg and Mr Haji want Ms Hassell replaced.

Mrs Langberg said: “It was never like this before. If something happened on the weekend, there would be someone there to sign off. I understand if it’s a legal issue, but when it’s not, there shouldn’t be a delay.”