“Above the dais, the ornate chair, the robe, the still head of the Judge rises above the court as if suspended.

‘Thirty-two cheeses, my Lord, valued three hundred pounds, four shillings and nine pence.’

The first moments inside a Court of Law are like the first moments in a play — the eye notes the scene, sound begins to reach the ear, then words. Sense converges later.”

For those of us brought up in the law, who practise or preach its doctrines, it is refreshing sometimes to be told how it looks and feels to an outsider. Sybille Bedford was good at that. She brought a novelist’s imagination and a travel writer’s curiosity to her observations of the trial process, in courts both here and abroad. She made it sound interesting whatever the nature of the proceedings: whether it was summonses for immorality in a local magistrates’ court or a trial in Court No 1 at the Old Bailey for murder — or, as in “An Ordinary Trial” (chapter one of her book ), the theft of a consignment of cheeses:

And so the play continues. The jury sit and watch, “twice six persons, three of them women, fitted to two benches, one above the other, in an open box that seems just to hold them”. A junior barrister has “a fine sheep’s face under a square-fringed wig of dirty white”. As he passes a note down the advocates’ row, “two string-bag wigs meet in confabulatory hisses, black cloth billows”. The furniture of the court consists of “pews and boxes” and, in the centre, “two large tables, stained biscuit-brown like all the other boarding, a-flutter with a snowstorm of documents”. The clerk of the court “sits toga’d behind a stack of foolscap, looking at his fingernails”, and an “usher moves about softly, careful not to trip”. While the clerk and usher try to avoid attention, the barristers seem to vie for it, sometimes just for the sake of it.

Admittedly, too much of this could begin to seem rather mannered. But this is before the narrative proper has got underway, before the cut and thrust of evidence in chief and cross-examination. Bedford is setting the scene and introducing all the players. As for the case itself, “The facts appeared to point in one direction. They nearly always do until one’s heard another side.” And so the story unfolds, and the other side is heard, and the cases for Crown and defence are closed and summed up by the judge, and the jury reaches its verdict.

Life — Art — Law

Sybille Bedford is one of those literary figures who often turns up in other people’s books. She had an interesting, if unsettled life: born in Germany in the early Twentieth-century to an aristocratic old Bavarian father and his romantic but flighty second wife, spending much of her childhood in the South of France or in England, escaping to New York when war broke out (her German / Jewish identity cloaked in British citizenship thanks to a hurriedly pragmatic marriage to a gay friend-of-a-friend, Walter “Terry” Bedford), travelling around Mexico with her lover in the late 1940s, then living in Italy in the 1950s before establishing herself as a writer back in England in the 1960s. Her life provided material for a handful of novels that were at least partly autobiographical as well as travel books and articles, a biography of Aldous Huxley, and a memoir. Although her 1989 novel was nominated for the Booker Prize, and her memoir published shortly before her death in 2006, revealed much (eg about her sexuality) on which she had previously been enigmatically coy, she is often still thought of as “a writer’s writer” and is not as familiar to contemporary readers as she might be.

That may change now that she is also the subject of a recent biography by Selina Hastings, entitled (Chatto). It was after reading about this in the London Review of Books, and then seeing an article by Hastings about Bedford’s travels in Mexico in the Spring 2021 issue of the literary magazine Slightly Foxed, that I was prompted to investigate further about her trial reporting and to seek out a copy of (1961), which was reprinted by Faber Finds in 2011.

Bedford’s interest in writing about court cases dates back to her teenage years in London in the 1920s, when she would visit the public gallery in the Royal Courts of Justice. She later wrote that she would have liked to read for the Bar but felt her sex was against it, as well as her almost total lack of formal education. But she found in the law a fascinating subject for her observation as a writer, and covered some notorious cases for newspapers and magazines. According to Thomas Grant, in , her “book about the trial in 1957 of Dr Bodkin Adams, , is generally regarded as the finest single-volume account of a criminal trial ever written.” She had, says Grant, “a good nose for a classic trial”. She went on to write about the trials of Stephen Ward (re the Profumo scandal) and Penguin Books (re “”) for Esquire magazine, the trial of Jack Ruby (for the killing of President Kennedy’s assassin) for Life magazine, and the trial of 22 members of the Auschwitz staff in Frankfurt from 1963 to 1965 for the Saturday Evening Post.

is a collection of pieces about trials in England, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France. She admits that she is “much aware of my unprofessional limitations” as an “amateur, the private unlearned afficionado of the law”. Nevertheless, “Justice is supposed to be seen being done, and this must surely mean seen also by the likes of us.”

The English section begins with a trial on indictment (ie for a felony), then goes on to discuss summary justice (various misdemeanours) in the magistrates’ court. A third chapter explains the difference between the two, and the procedure by which the more serious cases must first pass through the lower court on their way to the higher (the committal of a case for trial by jury). Another chapter covers the lesser family law matters which are dealt with in the magistrates’ court, including domestic violence, child support and spousal maintenance.

Although this first section doesn’t give a complete conspectus of English justice, it does explain to the lay reader the key aspects of criminal justice and court procedure. It helps make sense of what such a reader might expect to find if they wandered into the public gallery of any court themselves. And it does so with considerable wit and charm.

“People are brought into the dock still steaming with their deeds” she writes, of the quick-fire justice in the magistrates’ court, where the vast majority of criminal activity is tried and summarily punished, often with a fine (of twenty, thirty or forty shillings in old money). Drunks, shoplifters, prostitutes and petty thieves: one by one they take their (all too brief) turn before the bench:

The prostitutes in particular are something of a spectacle.

You wonder the courts themselves weren’t prosecuted for living off immoral earnings.

Courts in other countries

Bedford is reluctant to revisit Germany, recalling the horrors of the Nazi regime from which she fled, but having agreed to do so for work is pleasantly surprised by the liberal patience and fairness of the process when she watches a criminal trial in Karlsruhe, “the law capital of West Germany”. The accused, an army doctor, had fatally shot a man in a public park who had repeatedly exposed himself indecently to the doctor’s 12-year-old daughter. It has been the talk of the nation for the last eight months. Once again, Bedford has unerringly stumbled upon a cause célèbre.

The account of the trial shows its far more inquisitorial approach, with the three judges (sitting with six jurors all on the same low dais) asking most of the questions, the prosecutor observing like an umpire from his “pulpit”, and the defence counsel barely rousing himself to ask more than the occasional question in cross-examination, saving his exertions for a long and impassioned closing speech. It is a patient and very time consuming process, which Bedford compares (not unfavourably) to the swifter, more decisive, adversarial approach of common law jurisdictions.

In Austria, she visits a Bezirksgericht, a court of petty-sessional level, from which she says it would not be fair to draw any wider conclusions about Austrian justice. That is just as well, as proceedings there seems more akin to comic opera. The judge is irascible, spends much of the time staring at his watch, drumming his fingers. The prosecutor jumps up from time to time to bark: “Venerable court, I submit punishment for the accused”. There is a case about a stolen cauliflower. “Three days each for the cabbage thieves,” says the judge peremptorily. Another case is about malicious damage to a neighbour’s curtain. This time the prosecutor says: “I submit compensation for the injured party”. But there is insufficient evidence of the damage done. The judge tosses his biretta into the air. “Adjourned!”

In Switzerland, Bedford goes to Schaffhausen where she stumbles into a case about a flower pot falling from a window-sill. The inhabitants were only careless but the consequences could have been far worse. The defendant householder is fined thirty Swiss francs, plus a court fee and five francs litigation tax.

But the main reason Bedford has come here is to attend an appeal hearing, before five judges. The judges are elected, and not necessarily lawyers: “the law”, she explains, “is felt to be something that can be administered by any able-bodied man of good repute”. Everything is conducted in open court, even the judges’ deliberations:

There are 25 cantons and, therefore, 25 Swiss legal systems. Bedford highlights the common features, which seem to reflect the order and democracy so deeply ingrained in Swiss life. Legislation is voted on by the general public, and the justice system is slow but meticulous:

Finally, in France she attends La Cour d’Assizes in Paris to watch the trial of a twelve Algerians accused of armed attacks on a number of cafes, also kept by Algerians, allegedly in retaliation for not paying “levies” claimed by the FLN (National Liberation Front) terrorist organisation. The jury is “fused” as in Germany, nine of them sitting together with judges and Advocat général representing the prosecution. The presiding judge, the President des Assises, carries out the oral examination of the accused, which forms the initial phase of the trial. A defence counsel rarely speaks until he makes his closing speech, though he may occasionally ask a question with the court’s permission. Much of the evidence would be inadmissible in England, being opinion or hearsay. A witness who had also been a victim, shot during one of the attacks, is treated as a separate party in the proceedings: .

The advocate general closes the case for the prosecution, making clear he is asking for life sentences rather than the death penalty: “.” Then the defence counsel speak. Bedford explains that “a lawyer practising at the criminal bar in France never appears for anything except the defence.” Such specialisation, she says, “fosters a relationship between bar and bench very unlike what it is in England”. She is not a fan.

The first defence counsel to make his closing submissions is “outstandingly inept”, Bedford recalls. He ponderously quotes Montaigne and Montesquieu, as does another defence barrister, along with Pascal and Horace. When all the speeches, long and rambling, are done, the judges and jury retire to deliberate. When they return, they give their verdict in the form of a series of answers, yes or no, to numbered questions. “There were in all three hundred and thirty eight questions,” says Bedford. It seems the defendants have all been found guilty, but they can appeal. Or, someone says with a shrug, “there’ll be an amnesty some day”.

Bedford ends with an account of summary justice in Paris, which she prefaces with a magnificent description of the Palais de Justice in the Ile de la Cité:

After that, it’s a bit of an anti-climax to encounter, in one of those “tread-mills” of justice, a case about the theft of two spoons by a hotel maid. The book ends with a case of public immorality of the sort that might just as easily have turned up in the Police Court in London where Bedford began her of criminal justice.

is also a snapshot of how the courts looked at a time now sufficiently distant to lend it historical as well as comparative legal interest. The cold war is over, West Germany no longer exists, and legal procedures have changed in ways that may have eroded some of the distinctions while possibly creating others. But the author’s powers of observation and description are timeless, and the quality of her writing makes this a book not only well worth investigating for its legal interest, but a pleasure to read for its own sake.


I was interested to see that there is a website devoted to Sybille Bedford, though it does not appear to have been kept up to date: http://www.sybillebedford.com/ There is a lot else besides, when one begins to search the internet.

Featured image: Photo by Diane Helentjaris on Unsplash