COURT cases across England are facing delays after the Government launched an emergency plan to tackle the overcrowding “crisis” in jails.

Bail hearings and a suspect’s first appearance before magistrates after they have been charged with a crime by police are most likely to be affected under the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) so-called Operation Early Dawn.

But it could have a knock-on effect on other cases and types of hearings.

The issue was raised only last week in a hearing at Bradford Crown Court when a man was sentenced for possession of indecent images of children.

Mitigating, Lauren Smith said her client had lived “a completely law-abiding life” until his arrest and sought a suspended sentence on the basis of his previous good character, his age, and the current status of the UK’s overcrowded prison estate, which she said was “at breaking point”.

The long-standing contingency measure allows defendants to be held in police cells until prison beds become available but could mean their court dates are delayed or adjourned.

Justice officials are yet to confirm how many cases will be affected but stressed the measures, while rolled out across England, do not mean there will be delays in every region and insisted the plan was put in place to limit disruption.

Labour accused the Government of “stalling justice and leaving victims in limbo” in the wake of the news while legal bodies raised concerns about the “real-life consequences” of the delays.

Operation Early Dawn was put into action on Wednesday and is expected to last a week.

The move has raised questions as to whether defendants who would normally be held in custody on remand while their case moves through the courts may have to be initially released on bail. Although the Government said courts and police are not being instructed to do so.

A MoJ spokesman said: “This Government is categorical that the most dangerous offenders should stay behind bars for longer, which is why new laws will keep rapists locked up for every day of their prison sentence and ensure life means life for the most horrific murderers.”

They added: “We continue to see pressure on our prisons following the impact of the pandemic and barristers’ strike which is why we have initiated a previously used measure to securely transfer prisoners between courts and custody and ensure there is always a custody cell available should they be remanded.”

Chairman of the Bar Council Sam Townend KC said it was “wrong” for the Government to blame the barrister’s strike as a contributing factor on prisons and courts being in crisis and described Operation Early Dawn as “just one symptom of the chronic lack of investment in the criminal justice system”.

“Real and sustained investment in prisons, courts, judges, solicitors and barristers is needed and now, otherwise these emergency measures will just precipitate more,” he added.