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Court delays imposed after pressure on prison places

Ministers have ordered the criminal justice system to delay starting the court cases of some suspects because of overcrowding in prisons.

The emergency measure means some suspects will be released on bail, rather than sent to a cell, because their trial will be put off.

It comes as the prime minister was questioned over the scheme allowing for the early release of some prisoners.

Rishi Sunak insisted nobody deemed a public safety threat would be eligible.

It is not clear how many suspects will be bailed under Operation Early Dawn, the plan to delay the start of some court cases now in force across England, which was triggered on Wednesday.

Officials suggest the plan will remain in place for a week.

David McNeill, the public affairs director of the Law Society, told the BBC’s World at One programme that he was hearing “quite disturbing accounts” from members in courts describing the situation to delay court cases as “administrative carnage.”

“We’re having victims, witnesses, lawyers and defendants turning up at magistrates’ courts today only to find that the case has been cancelled and delayed to some point in the future.”

Tom Franklin, chief executive of the Magistrates’ Association, said this confusion led to “a waste of resources, at a time when there are already large backlogs”.

Operation Early Dawn is in addition to another emergency measure, originally introduced in October, under which some convicted criminals are already being released to a home curfew, to free up cells.

At PMQs on Wednesday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer asked for a guarantee from the government that no criminals considered high risk, including domestic abusers, were freed early as part of this scheme.

He pointed to an example of one inmate who posed a danger to children, who had his release date brought forward – a case that was revealed in a new report by the prison’s watchdog., external

In response, Mr Sunak said: “There are strict eligibility criteria in place, with exclusions based on public safety and no-one will be put on the scheme if they were deemed a threat to public safety.”

Labour also called on the government to release information about the number of people released so far under the scheme and what their crimes were.

A spokesperson for the party said it would scrap the early release system but was “under no illusion” this could be done immediately if Labour won the general election.

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