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The Role of the High Sheriff

The Office of High Sheriff is an independent non-political Royal appointment for a single year.

When a High Sheriff comes into office they promise to “ faithfully support the Judiciary and all who maintain the King's Peace, administer justice and protect and support their fellow citizens.”

The role is unpaid and no expenses are reimbursed. For this reason, there is no set framework of duties and the modern High Sheriff is shaped by the individual in the role.

The principal formal duties of High Sheriffs today include attendance at royal visits in the County and support for His Majesty’s High Court Judges when on Circuit. The High Sheriff offers encouragement to those supporting the charity and voluntary sectors and actively encourages crime prevention.  The High Sheriff seeks to uphold and enhance the ancient office while making a meaningful contribution to the county of Nottinghamshire in the present day.

The key elements of the role can be summarised as follows:
  • To lend active support to the principal organs of the constitution within the county - the Royal Family, the Judiciary, the Police and other law enforcement agencies, the emergency services, local authorities, and church and faith groups;

  • To take an active part in supporting and promoting the voluntary sector and giving all possible encouragement to voluntary organisations within the county;

  • To ensure the welfare of visiting High Court Judges, to attend on them at Court and to offer them hospitality;

  • To make a meaningful contribution to the county during the year of Office and to uphold and enhance the ancient Office of High Sheriff;

  • To support the Lord-Lieutenant on royal visits and on other occasions as appropriate;

  • To serve as Returning Officer at general and local elections within the county and having responsibility for the Proclamation of the accession of a new Sovereign.

The holder of the Office of High Sheriff can be well placed to offer encouragement to those in their county within the voluntary sector . The High Sheriff gives their own awards to individuals who have made an outstanding contribution in some way. 

History of the role

The office of High Sheriff is the oldest continuous secular Office under the Crown, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times when the King’s Reeve (or High Reeve)  acted as a royal official able to enforce the King’s interest in a county without becoming embroiled in local factions. It was 992 AD when the first shire reeves were ordered by the King to collect the onerous ‘Danegeld’ tax.

The new Sheriffs proved successful tax-gatherers and, under the Saxon kings, they became the Monarch’s trusted administrators within the shires. After the Conquest in 1066, the Norman Kings expanded this role and the Shrievalty remained at the heart of national administration for hundreds of years.

The High Sheriff was the main administrator within the shires and accountable to the National Revenue Court, the Court of Exchequer, for tax payable to the Crown. Each Sheriff had the facility to ‘farm’ his taxes, which meant that he could apply taxation on the populace for his own benefit as well as for the Exchequer. It was this that made the medieval Sheriff such a deeply unpopular and hated figure, giving rise to caricatures such as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham in the tale of Robin Hood.

The collection and rendering of tax to the Exchequer remained a major task of High Sheriffs and, although it reduced after the 16th century, it was still a significant and unpopular burden. Over the centuries, however, their responsibilities reduced as a centrally controlled ‘civil service’ grew.

High Sheriffs presided at Shire Courts from pre-Norman times, but from 1166 itinerant justices assumed their judicial functions. However, the power to enforce Writs of Court remained vested in the Sheriffs until 2004 when the responsibility for the enforcement of High Court Writs was handed to High Court Enforcement Officers.

The High Sheriffs’ early powers to administer justice within the land were extensive. They could raise the hue and cry after criminals in their counties and keep the King’s peace by mobilising the posse comitatus, the full military force of the county. In theory, this can still be raised and as recently as the two World Wars, High Sheriffs’ powers to mobilise the posse comitatus were re-invoked in case of an emergency, fulfilling their duty to defend the realm against the King’s enemies.

By the 14th century, High Sheriffs had become highly influential in choosing their counties’ parliamentary representatives and the duty of High Sheriffs to act as Parliamentary Returning Officers remains to this day.

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