Last-minute delay to hundreds of court hearings due to prison overcrowding in England

Hundreds of court hearings have been postponed at the last minute after ministers introduced emergency measures to deal with overcrowded prisons.

Operation Early Dawn, triggered on Wednesday, means some suspects will be released on bail, rather than sent to a cell, because their trial will be put off. Suspects’ first appearances before magistrates after they have been charged with a crime are also likely to be affected.

The move is in addition to another measure under which some convicted criminals are being released to a home curfew to free up cells.

It remains unclear how many suspects will be bailed under the operation now in force across England.

Details of the measures emerged as Keir Starmer told Rishi Sunak during parliamentary exchanges to stop trying to issue “get out of jail free cards” to criminals.

Tom Franklin, the chief executive of the Magistrates’ Association, said his members were very concerned about the further delays and the lack of information from the Ministry of Justice.

“Every case that is delayed has real-life consequences for victims, witnesses and defendants – and leads to magistrates and court staff sitting around waiting, rather than administering justice. That is a waste of resources, at a time when there are already large backlogs. It demonstrates the parlous state of the criminal justice system and the need for an injection of more resources at every stage of the justice process.”

Downing Street denied that prisons were now officially full and defended government measures to cut overcrowding.

Asked whether it was fair to say the estate had run out of space for offenders, the prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “No. This is an existing operation that is used from time to time to manage immediate localised pressures on the prison estate.”

He said the government was “clear and categorical” that the worst offenders should be locked away for “as long as it takes to protect the public”.

More details soon …

The Guardian

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