High Sheriffs’ responsibilities were consolidated by The Sheriffs Act 1887, which is still in force.
High Sheriffs represent the Sovereign in their counties in upholding all matters relating to the Judiciary and maintaining law and order.
Their responsibilities conferred by the Crown through warrant from the Privy Council can be summarised as:
- Attending Royal visits to the county.
- Attending on High Court Judges on circuit and ensuring their well-being.
- Acting as returning officer for parliamentary elections.
- Proclaiming the accession of a new Sovereign and maintaining the loyalty of subjects to the Crown.
- Appointing an Under Sheriff and carrying out various ceremonial functions.
Following the Courts Act 2003, the High Sheriff’s ancient responsibility for the enforcement of High Court Writs of Execution, via Under Sheriffs and executed by the Sheriffs’ Officers, was transferred to newly appointed High Court Enforcement Officers.
Today High Sheriffs aim to support voluntary and statutory bodies engaged in all aspects of law and order. They take a special interest in the activities of such statutory bodies as the Police, the Prison Service and the Probation Service.
Under the Criminal Law Act 1826, they are required to give monetary awards to people who, in the opinion of Judges at a criminal trial, have been active in the apprehension of specific offenders.
To assist High Sheriffs in their task, the High Sheriffs’ Association of England and Wales was founded in 1971. Its principal aim is to develop the unique role of the High Sheriff to the benefit of the community and to protect, promote and sustain the ancient Office and its traditions. The Association sponsors two charities: National Crimebeat, which supports and encourages young people to involve themselves with crime reduction initiatives and to create safer communities; and DebtCred, a financial literacy project aimed at equipping young people with basic money management skills in preparation for their lives after school. The Association encourages High Sheriffs to participate in Citizenship Ceremonies in their counties, welcoming new British subjects as they make their declarations.
The outward symbols of the shrievalty are anciently ceremonial and heraldic. The badge of the Association was granted by the Earl Marshal to mark the official millennium of the office in 1992 and may be worn and used by High Sheriffs. It is illustrated at the top of this page and is described as “Two swords in saltire Argent hilts pommels and quillons Or that in bend couped at the point charged upon an Oval Azure environed by a Wreath composed of Oak Leaves Gold with in chief and in base a Tudor Rose Gules upon Argent barbed and seeded proper and in the flanks two Leeks in saltire also proper the whole ensigned by the Royal Crown proper.”.
If in possession of a personal coat of arms, High Sheriffs generally use this as their identifying ‘badge’ for the year, although some counties have a shrieval coat of arms or badge, which, with the Association’s badge, may be used alternatively or as well. Traditionally, male High Sheriffs officially wear court dress, or the uniform of one of the armed services, a Crown appointment or a Deputy Lieutenant, if so entitled. Ladies have more scope for their imagination, usually basing their costume on court dress.
The Office is independent, non-political and unpaid, which enables the holder to bring together a wide variety of individuals and office holders. As volunteers themselves, High Sheriffs can recognise and encourage the thousands of people in their counties who involve themselves in all aspects of voluntary and charitable work.
It has been said that the story of the High Sheriff is indeed the story of England itself. The post has developed over its 1,000 years or more of continuous existence and devotion to the Crown, with duties of the High Sheriff being adapted and moulded to today’s needs. While the 20th century witnessed many difficult social and environmental changes, the High Sheriff of the 21st century still fulfils the ancient role of supporting the shire, upholding its peace and loyalty to the Crown and stimulating its communities to act in the furtherance of the good of everybody.
An unpalatable duty was the witnessing of the death penalty, which High Sheriffs had to ensure was performed properly.