Initial signs emerged yesterday of the court ‘chaos’ that criminal defenders predicted would unfold as a result of ‘Operation Early Dawn’, an emergency measure to deal with prison capacity challenges.

Confirming that Operation Early Dawn commenced on Wednesday, the Ministry of Justice said HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) would assess each morning which defendants could be transferred from police cells and taken to courts to ensure a safe and secure location is available if they are remanded in custody.

The move could see some defendants kept in police custody an extra night or bailed. The ministry said bail decisions would be made by the police and judges. The ministry stressed that no bail instructions had been given, and triaging will be done by HMPPS, and not Serco, which provides the Prison Escort Custody Service.

The Law Society warned that Operation Early Dawn could cause chaos as victims, witnesses, defendants and lawyers would turn up to court only to find their cases delayed. On day one of Operation Early Dawn, criminal defence solicitor Kerry Hudson revealed the contents of a court attendance note, which said: ‘Client not brought to court because of Operation Early Dawn although listed in court 10. He may or may not be produced tomorrow. He may already be bailed. Who knows? Will have to check with cells tomorrow.’

Hudson described the situation as a ‘regulatory and compliance nightmare, not to mention a financial risk to already struggling firms’.

‘HM Courts & Tribunals Service Gold Command’ yesterday issued a note on court contingencies. It said the contingency was activated in all HMCTS regions except Wales. Crown and magistrates’ courts will remain open ‘but there may be some disruption to court operations in some geographical areas’. Court staff will monitor the nature and degree of disruption.

Gold Command will support use of video hearings in some areas where the judge deems it necessary and appropriate. If a case needs to be rearranged, the court will contact affected parties. Parties not contacted should assume their case will go ahead and attend the hearing as planned.

Operation Early Dawn is expected to run until Tuesday, though no official end date had been set at the time of going to press.


This article is now closed for comment.