Criminal trials are set to be dramatically curtailed by major changes to the way lawyers are paid from the public purse, the Lord Chancellor announced yesterday.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC revealed a new programme of legal aid reform which he said would put an end to long-running trials in England and Wales.
Instead of securing virtually open-ended legal aid agreements, lawyers in criminal trials will be expected to submit bids to win contracts.
If a case lasts longer than expected, the lawyers - rather than the taxpayer - will be obliged to pick up the costs, said Lord Falconer.
Trials will also be made quicker and more efficient by making prosecution and defence teams agree far more areas of a case before going to court, he said.
"The days of the 18-month trial are over," said the Lord Chancellor.
Most cases should not last longer than "a few months at the very, very most," he said.
The changes - due to be detailed in a new strategy document today - are designed to reduce the amount spent on criminal legal aid so more can be spent on civil cases, such as money disputes, and family hearings such as divorce.
Lord Falconer said the legal aid budget had risen from £1.5 billion a year to £2.1 billion a year since Labour came to power in 1997, but spending on civil legal aid had fallen by 22 per cent.
"There are too many areas where people don't get the advice and representation that they need at an early enough stage," he said.
"We need to address that imbalance. For me it is an absolute priority to make legal aid work for fairer outcomes.
"We need the legal aid system to be encouraging fair but more expeditious resolution of legal cases.
"This is about value for money but it's also about reducing the pressure on the victim, the witnesses and the defendant."
The Government has already passed new laws - yet to be brought into force - which will allow judges to sit without juries in complex fraud trials and where participants may be subjected to intimidation.
Asked whether the proposed Legal Aid reforms could result in prosecutors opting for lesser charges which are easier to prove, Lord Falconer said: "Yes, I think it could lead to a risk of that. That's why it's sensible to keep open the option of juryless trials."