A recent court ruling has left police "running around like headless chickens" as they will be restricted to bailing suspected criminals to four days before they must be charged or released completely.
The previous bail system allowed police officers to hold suspects at police stations for up to 96 hours but they could also release suspects on bail for weeks or even months while further inquiries were conducted, and then call them back in later for questioning.
The new ruling, made by a Salford Magistrates' Court district judge and upheld by Mr Justice McCombe in the high court, means that if suspects are not charged within the 96-hour limit they will have to be released and cannot be arrested again until new evidence is found.
Currently there are some 85,000 suspects released on bail in England and Wales who could all find themselves off the hook unless police officers can bring charges against them imminently.
Sir Norman Bettison, chief constable of West Yorkshire Police said: "We are running round like headless chickens wondering what this means to the nature of justice. It's on the verge of a disaster now because the question being asked by my custody sergeants is, 'What do we do, boss?'
"The early indications are that until this matter is appealed or new legislation is passed the issue of putting people on bail for further questioning when they answer their bail is pretty much a dead duck."
An appeal against the ruling has been lodged with the Supreme Court, as many people are worried that thousands of criminals could escape punishment through the new ruling. But a decision on the matter is unlikely to be reached before the end of July.
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, admits that the ruling is of "great concern". She said: "There may be an opportunity to appeal this decision.
"We are also looking at whether or not it's necessary to introduce legislation in order to deal with this issue. We are conscious of the concerns this judgment has brought in terms of operational policing."
Andy Adams, the Association of Chief Police Officers' lead for custody, said: "We are working in partnership with colleagues across the criminal justice system, particularly the Crown Prosecution Service, and have commissioned a QC to advise on the ruling and its impact on policing.
"We are working with the Home Office to seek to reduce any immediate impact before the expedited hearing at the Supreme Court."
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