Origins of the role of High Sheriff

A short history of the High Sheriff has been included, as many people ask about this. This has been divided into the office in Greater London today and the historic origin of High Sheriffs.The High Sheriff of Greater London is a modern office, although its role is linked to past history.

Greater London today

Up to 1889 the county of London did not exist. The City of London was the historic London and remains a unique local authority today. In 1130 the City of London bought the right to elect its own sheriff and elects two sheriffs to this day. London sheriffs became powerful and could be well rewarded. The expense claim of the sheriff of London in 1157 after beating the Welsh was 20 tuns of wine, 60 pounds of pepper, 100 wooden cups, 1000 pounds of wax, cooks and scullions.

The county of London was created in 1889 and a Sheriff created for the new county. In 1965, the county of London was replaced by Greater London, comprising the old county of Middlesex and parts of Surrey and Kent and was divided into 32 boroughs. The High Sheriff of Greater London came into being then, although still called a Sheriff until 1974, when the term High Sheriff was brought in for all counties in England and Wales. The names of all High Sheriffs of Greater London since 1965 are listed on a board which is hung at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Today’s role to be the Sovereign’s representative for the Judiciary and the wider Justice system in Greater London reflects the historic links of Sheriffs to the administration of Justice and law and order. The Justice awards made by the High Sheriff are one of the very few remaining legal duties and reflect this link.

Historic role: Manager of the King’s estate and Collector of Revenues

The office of High Sheriff goes back to Saxon times and to the seventh century. It is the oldest civic office in England. In Saxon times the country was divided into administrative regions called shires, a county today. The name of Sheriff evolved from the original Anglo Saxon scir gerefa, to Shire Reeve, the guardian or head of a shire and then to Sheriff. There is mention made of Sheriffs in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle of which there is an original copy in the Parker Library in Corpus Christ College, Cambridge University. Sheriffs supported the King militarily and mention is made of Sheriffs at the Battle of Hastings fighting for the last Saxon king, King Harold.

The Norman kings retained the office and a Sheriff was appointed for each Shire to head the civil and military administration of the shire. They became responsible for the management of the king’s estate, collecting taxes and rents from the king’s tenants and ensuring that law and order was maintained.

In the 12th Century, King Henry I established the Court of Exchequer and Sheriffs were obliged to pay over the taxes collected from their shires to that court. This enabled the King to exercise some control over the Sheriffs. Some had abused their power and exhorted extra taxes by threats or failed to account for all the revenues collected. Magna Carta contains provisions designed to reign in such abuses. A stringent system of fines were imposed for those Sheriffs who failed fully to account.

The Sheriffs’ revenue collection, as well as military, powers were gradually stripped away. The Sheriff’s responsibility for military affairs in a shire passed eventually to the Lord Lieutenant, a role created in the sixteenth century, for each county.

Historic role: The Justice System

The Sheriff had responsibility for administering justice in the shire courts in Anglo Saxon times although part of this was shared with Bishops of the church. Sheriffs became solely responsible for dealing with disputes, other than church matters, from Norman times and remained responsible for preserving the King’s peace and had the power to raise the “hue and cry” (the ‘posse comitatus’). This power allowed the Sheriff to raise a small army in pursuit of criminals. This right of posse comitatus was only repealed in 1967.

The Sheriffs presided over the Hundred Courts which were held every four weeks in medieval times. The Sheriffs arrested and hanged criminals and empanelled common law juries. The Sheriff would deliver the judgment, which could include trial by ordeal and ensured that the sentence was carried out. The obligation to supervise public executions lasted until the abolition of the death penalty in the 1950s.

Later medieval Kings established a penal code and delegated their powers for law enforcement to the local Sheriff and established Assize Courts over which the Sheriff had jurisdiction. The King’s justices were sent out on circuit to sit at them. There are still circuit judges. The Sheriff surrendered its jurisdiction over these courts to the King’s judges of the assize whilst the judges were sitting. This jurisdictional link over the Assize Courts lasted until these courts were replaced by the Crown Courts in the 1970s, although the Sheriffs’ duties, by then, were very different.

The Sheriffs’ link to the functions of the civil law lasted until 1999. The writ of summons which started every civil claim from 1154 to 1999 stated that claimant should request the court to direct the Sheriff in the relevant county to summons the defendant to appear before a judge to defend the claim.

Legal and administrative practices were reformed extensively in Victorian times and the Sheriffs’ Act 1887 was introduced to bring the law relating to Sheriffs into line with existing practices. This is still the governing statute and consolidated the responsibilities of Sheriffs and confirmed their role as the Sovereign’s representative in a county for all matters relating to the Judiciary and the maintenance of law and order. This statute requires the High Sheriff to appoint an Under Sheriff.

The maintenance of law and order today, is principally delegated to the Chief Constable of Police for each county and in Greater London, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Following the Courts Act of 2003, the Sheriffs’ ancient responsibility for the enforcement of High Court Writs, which in practice was largely performed by the Under Sheriffs, was transferred to the newly appointed High Court Enforcement Officers.

Today the High Sheriff has few legal duties, but the duty to present Justice Awards recognises that the work of the Justice System is dependent on the support of citizens and rewards those that have gone above and beyond to help bring someone to justice. High Sheriffs outside Greater London still have a duty to look after visiting High Court judges.

List of Sheriffs in 7th century AD in Tudor document

List of Sheriffs in a Tudor document.

Extract from Anglo Saxon Chronicle from 7th century AD which mentions Sheriffs.

How the High Sheriff is appointed

The law requires the High Sheriff to nominate a person to be appointed High Sheriff for a future year. The process is governed by guidelines which require the High Sheriff to appoint an advisory panel to consider possible candidates and approve the candidate to be nominated by the High Sheriff. Any candidate to be put forward to the Privy Council for appointment must be approved by the Lord-Lieutenant of the county.

There are certain requirements to be met by candidates. Candidates cannot be members of Parliament or involved in national or local politics during their proposed year of office, a judge, a practicing lawyer in a field which may present a conflict, a magistrate or a serving member of the armed forces. A candidate for High Sheriff of Greater London should have played a prominent part in the life of Greater London through their work or voluntary activities and seek to represent Greater London as a whole. Candidates must own property in Greater London and must not have any criminal convictions.

The process which is followed by the High Sheriff of Greater London is under review. It is important that candidates and those put forward for appointment reflect the diversity of Greater London, have the time to perform the role and can demonstrate a strong interest in performing it.

Each year a ceremony is held in the Royal Courts of Justice on November 12 during which the names of the candidates submitted for appointment (nomination) are read out. Once that happens the candidates are known as High Sheriffs in Nomination.

In the month before a High Sheriff is expected to take office, His Majesty the King, in council, confirms the appointment by pricking the names of each High Sheriff with a bodkin, a tradition which is said to go back to at least Queen Elizabeth 1.

High Sheriff Framework


High Sheriff Framework

Built on: Consistency, Continuity, Collaboration, Convening and Celebration

What We Do

The High Sheriff of Greater London is His Majesty the King’s representative for the judiciary in Greater London. The role is independent, voluntary and non-political. Each High Sheriff of Greater London serves for a one year term and is supported by an Under Sheriff, appointed by each High Sheriff.

Supporting, encouraging and celebrating the work of the judiciary, the courts and the wider justice system is at the heart of the role. This includes the work of the Metropolitan Police, London prisons, the London probation service, HM Inspectors of Prisons, Constabulary, Fire and Rescue, the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime and the charitable and voluntary sector; much of whose work both supports and underpins the justice system, especially prisoner rehabilitation, victim and witness support.

Traditionally the work we do has been more focussed on the criminal justice system and those that are engaged in it. However the role is broader and encompasses the work of other courts, including the High Court civil work, family, county and coroners’ courts and tribunals, such as the immigration tribunals.

The office of the High Sheriff of Greater London also provides support for the work of the Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London which fosters social inclusion through his Building Bridges project and the work of those involved in the emergency services. High Sheriffs in England and Wales will often be asked to support Royal visits or events in their counties. Supporting royal visits is not usually required of the High Sheriff of Greater London.

The High Sheriff is active in its support for the work of volunteers. Charitable organisations and volunteers play a significant role in providing support to our communities in Greater London.

The office operates without any financial or administrative support, other than any support paid for by the High Sheriff.

A Framework for the Office

A Framework has been put in place to meet the challenge of providing effective support to our communities in a large and complex city.

It aims to promote consistency and continuity in carrying out the core function of the role, to maintain and build relationships and momentum from one High Sheriff to the next and to promote initiatives and projects, which successive High Sheriffs are keen to support. This is designed to achieve greater effectiveness for our communities and visibility in what we do. It will be kept under review as the role continues to adapt to support the needs of our communities.

The Framework allows for each High Sheriff to draw on their skills and expertise and put in place individual plans to further any particular theme they may choose to have in their year of office to enhance the business as usual engagements and any ongoing projects.

The building blocks

The building blocks underlying the Framework are:

Consistency: consistent engagement with our key stakeholders, to ensure that relationships are maintained and built and momentum is not lost as each new High Sheriff takes office. A set of business as usual engagements is at the core of this.

Continuity: continuity through on-going projects to support the principles of justice and compliment the work of our stakeholders. Team High Sheriff has been formed to support the work of the High Sheriff and to carry on support for on going projects to promote continuity and enhance the effectiveness of the role.

Any continuity projects will sit alongside any individual initiatives which a High Sheriff may wish to promote during their year of office and the business as usual activities.

Some projects under consideration will add to the existing programme to recognise and celebrate the actions of people in Greater London. A programme of youth awards is aimed at. These were introduced by several High Sheriffs around the country in 2020 in response to the impact of Covid on young people. Many have been affected by mental health issues, domestic abuse or other crime as well as the loss of education, jobs and social opportunities. Supporting young people is central to some of the plans being considered by Team High Sheriff.

Collaboration: Team High Sheriff will collaborate with others to enhance the work of the High Sheriff and cut across silos. Team High Sheriff supports the work of the Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London and his Building Bridges programme and, in particular, his work to increase social inclusion. Working with other High Sheriffs to share ideas and best practice through on-line meetings and events gives rise to opportunities to collaborate on issues across county boundaries and promote awareness. The opportunity is also presented to work with others to promote initiatives aimed at addressing common issues. Team High Sheriff welcomes this.

Convening: The independence and nature of the office affords the opportunity to bring people together to build bridges, raise awareness of and possible solutions to issues affecting the justice system and people in our communities in Greater London. Increased use of on-line engagement during the last two years has opened up greater opportunities for the office to bring people together to have conversations, on a small or large scale and to engage with a wider audience. Through this we can work to help cut across silos and assist collaboration amongst stakeholders.

Convening events under a badge such as “Sheriff Spotlight Event” or “High Sheriff Justice Lecture” form part of Team Sheriff’s plans to provide support to our stakeholders in raising awareness of their work,  the issues they face and possible solutions.

Celebration: Thanking people and celebrating the extraordinary efforts of others in supporting the work of the justice system is at the heart of the role. Crown Court judges have discretionary powers to make Justice awards to people who have gone above and beyond in helping bring someone to justice or to help a victim of crime. These are monetary awards. The High Sheriff is responsible for presenting these awards. Greater London judges make a significant number of awards and a key business as usual event is for the High Sheriff to hold awards ceremonies each year to present High Sheriff Justice certificates to celebrate the public spirited actions of the award recipients.

Presenting Covid award certificates to unsung heroes is at the heart of our work to celebrate our communities in 2021 and 2022 and in particular to staff and volunteers whose work supports the justice system (including courts, prisons and charities), to peer mentors in prison and to members of the community, to thank them for their extraordinary dedication and support given to others during Covid.

The High Sheriff supports National Crimebeat by identifying and supporting projects led or delivered by young people in Greater London to help combat crime. The High Sheriff collaborates with stakeholders, such as the Metropolitan Police and charities, to identify projects which can be put forward for an award.

Youth awards to support good citizenship behaviours which underpin justice, such as fairness, kindness, respect and taking responsibility form part of the plans of Team Sheriff, working in collaboration with stakeholders and, over time, schools.

What is New

  • The Framework builds on the work that successive High Sheriffs of Greater London have done but “hard codes” some of this to create much greater continuity in the doing.
  • Team High Sherif has been created to help support the work of the High Sheriff to promote continuity and greater effectiveness for our communities.
  • The opportunity has been taken to reflect on the the way the role of the High Sheriff has been performed during Covid around the country to assist communities and the challenges faced and which they continue to face. An emphasis on increased community engagement and use of technology and media platforms, to promote awareness of the work of our stakeholders, the issues they face, greater collaboration and transparency in what we do, are key outcomes.
  • The Framework recognises the financial constraints on the role. New elements are being built into our work to help address some of the financial constraints, for example through more on-line engagement to hold meetings and events. It is important that diversity is promoted and the office can be performed by people who do not have extensive financial resources.
  • A Sheriff Justice Fund, under the auspices of the London Community Foundation, which would allow funds to be built up by successive High Sheriffs to support Team High Sheriff initiatives, such as youth awards, is being considered. This would allow for a programme of awards to be developed which would provide more material recognition for the work that young people have been engaged in to combat crime or to promote good behaviours which contribute to good citizenship and underpin effective justice.
  • Relationships with a wider number of stakeholders are being developed, for example with mayors in boroughs with prisons and Crown Courts to raise the visibility of what we do and increased community engagement. Building relationships with the Deputy Lieutenants for these boroughs is also part of this plan.
  • Collaboration with High Sheriffs in other counties and with City of London Sheriffs on some events has led and may lead to convening opportunities on justice related issues for the benefit of our communities.
  • An ongoing programme of presenting awards in London’s prisons in collaboration with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and the charity Prison Advice and Care Trust was put in place in 2021.