Each episode of this Flemish series treats a different trial before the Court of Assizes, competent for judging the most serious of crimes such as murder. Such a court is a more or less dual creation, combining professional judges with a jury made up of average citizens. By its very nature it treats only the saddest or most sensational of cases, meaning that it is a prime spot for observing Humanity in its most vicious AND its most vulnerable aspects. (Lawyers may be interested to know that both Belgian penal law and the Assizes system have been comprehensively reformed since the time of the series. But I don't want to bore you with technicalities.)
It is said that the series was based on, or inspired by, a number of real-life cases. This may be very well be true - many of the episodes breathe the kind of muddled despair or claustrophobic messiness one finds in real-life tragedies - but it's pretty clear that the material was deeply and radically adapted in order to fit into the format. "Hof van Assisen" is not the best courtroom series ever produced in Belgium, mainly because the characters tend to be flat and the acting tends to be mediocre. Moreover, the outcome tends to be predictable, barring the odd plot twist or cunning denouement. This, in other words, is not the place to go to if you want psychologically subtle and deep portrayals, just as it is not the place to go to if you want riveting suspense.
On the other hand "Hof van Assisen" is not without merits. The viewer gets a good idea of what one could call the ritualized play-acting associated with such a court ; a trial is a way of administering justice, yes, but it is also a performance with traditions as rigid as those found in Eastern "Noh" theatre. As a result it is not too far-fetched, or too disrespectful, to look upon the various robes and uniforms as some kind of theatrical costumes. From a rhetorical point of view Belgian law tends to be as dry as dust, but the Court of Assizes has always been a good place for heated exchanges, 19th century flourishes and nasty insinuations : watch the series for some nice examples. There's also the occasional joke, such as in the case regarding the male transvestite who was battered to death by a client / admirer. The deceased has a prostitute sister, who comes to testify dressed in hugely unsuitable clothes and who describes herself, with admirable accuracy, as "een zelfstandige" (an independent professional).
Finally the series also points out how hard it is to understand, let alone judge a fellow citizen. Facts flee, perspectives vary, interpretations clash - and some humans have drifted away so far from sense and sanity that they have become dreadful enigmas even to themselves...
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