The High Sheriff is, or was, a law enforcement position in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. In England and Wales, the High Sheriff is an unpaid, partly ceremonial post appointed by The Crown through a Warrant from the Privy Council. In Cornwall the High Sheriff is appointed by the Duke of Cornwall. In some states of the United States of America, the High Sheriff is the chief sheriff of the state, who outranks and commands all other sheriffs.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the High Sheriff is theoretically the Sovereign's judicial representative in the county, while the Lord Lieutenant is the Sovereign's personal representative. (The post should not be confused with that of Sheriff in Scotland, who is a judge sitting in a Sheriff Court.) Their jurisdictions, the "Shrieval Counties", are no longer co-terminous with administrative areas, representing a mix between the ancient counties and more recent local authority areas. The post is unpaid (except for a nominal court attendance allowance), and the general expenses of the office are borne personally by the holder.
The office of Sheriff has its origins in the 10th century; the office reached the height of its influence under the Norman kings. The Provisions of Oxford (1258) established a yearly tenure of office. The appointments and duties of the High Sheriffs in England and Wales are laid down by the Sheriffs Act 1887.
The serving Sheriff submits a list of names of possible future sheriffs to a tribunal which chooses three names to put to the Sovereign. The nomination is made on 12 November every year and the term of office runs from 25 March, the start of the year prior to 1752. No person may be appointed twice in three years unless there is no other suitable person in the county.
The Sheriffs Act 1887 provided that sheriffs should be nominated on 12 November (Martinmas), or the Monday following if it fell on a Sunday, by any two or more of the Lord Chancellor, the Lord High Treasurer (or the Chancellor of the Exchequer if the Treasurership was in commission), the Lord President of the Council, and the Lord Chief Justice of England; other members of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council; and any two or more judges of Her Majesty's High Court. In 1998, the Chancellor of the Exchequer replaced the Lord High Treasurer entirely (since the latter office is invariably placed into commission), and in 2006, the Lord Chancellor was removed as a nominating officer through the operation of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. These officers nominate three candidates for each county in England and Wales (with the exception of Cornwall, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Lancashire), which are enrolled on a parchment by the Queen's Remembrancer.
The practice of "pricking" is an ancient custom used to appoint the High Sheriffs of England and Wales.
In February or March of each year, the parchment prepared the previous November is presented to the Monarch of the United Kingdom at a meeting of the Privy Council. Separate parchments are drawn up in November for Cornwall and presented to the Duke of Cornwall (or to the monarch when there is no Duke). The monarch, as Duke of Lancaster, also receives a separate parchment for Merseyside, Greater Manchester, and Lancashire.
Three persons are nominated for each county, of whom one is chosen by the monarch to be sheriff. In practice, the first name on the list is nowadays always the one chosen; the second and third names will become sheriffs in succeeding years, barring incapacity or death. The monarch signifies assent by pricking (i.e., piercing) the document with a silver bodkin by the relevant name for each county, and signs the parchment when complete. The parchment for the Duchy of Lancaster is known as the "Lites", and the ceremony of selection known as "Pricking the Lites". The term "lites", meaning "list", was once reserved for Yorkshire; the date at which the name was transferred to Lancashire is unknown.
The practice is believed to date back to the reign of Elizabeth I, when, lacking a pen, she decided to use her bodkin to mark the name instead. However, Lord Campbell states that in February 1847, while acquiring a prick and a signature from Queen Victoria, that Prince Albert asked him when the custom began, to which Campbell replied "In ancient times, sir, when sovereigns did not know how to write their names."
The declaration a person must make before taking the office of High Sheriff is contained in the second schedule of the Sheriffs Act 1887. Additional words are inserted in the case of the Duchy of Cornwall for example the declaration includes: "do solemnly declare that I will well and truly serve the Queen’s Majesty and also his Royal Highness Duke of Cornwall".
Most of the High Sheriff's work is delegated; for example, the local police now protect Judges and Courts, so that in effect the post of High Sheriff is essentially a ceremonial post. Theoretical responsibilities include the well-being and protection of High Court Judges, and attending them in Court; and the maintenance of the loyalty of subjects to the Crown.
The High Sheriff was traditionally responsible for the maintenance of law and order within the county, although most of these duties are now delegated to the professional Chief Constable of Police. As a result of its close links with law and order the position is frequently awarded to people with an association with law enforcement (former police officers, lawyers, magistrates, judges). The High Sheriff was originally allowed to kill suspects resisting arrest; this was still legal in the 17th century. Edward Coke noted that when the High Sheriff employed constables to assist in his duties the law was also extended to them.
Under the provisions of the Sheriffs Act 1887, if a sheriff finds any resistance in the execution of a writ he shall "take with him the power of the county" (known as posse comitatus), and shall go in proper person to do execution, and may arrest the resisters and commit them to prison, and every such resister shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
The High Sheriff of Cornwall is nominated and selected by the Duke of Cornwall, the heir apparent to the throne. (This right is vested in the Crown when there is no Duke of Cornwall.) Nomination and appointment generally takes place in Hilary Term, at the office of the Duchy of Cornwall.
The High Sheriff of Durham was appointed by the Bishop of Durham until 1836, when the jurisdiction of the county palatine became vested in the Crown. Since then the sheriffs of Durham have been appointed alongside the other English sheriffs.
The right to nominate and select sheriffs in Lancashire is vested in the monarch in right of the Duchy of Lancaster. Originally, this right applied only to the High Sheriff of Lancashire, but since the boundary changes of the Local Government Act 1972 (effective 1974), the High Sheriff of Greater Manchester and High Sheriff of Merseyside also lie under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Lancaster. As with the other counties in England, three names are nominated each year, but by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; these are presented to the monarch for selection by the Chancellor in a private audience. Selection generally occurs in Hilary Term.
The nomination of sheriffs in the counties of Wales was first vested by statute in the Council of Wales and the Marches and the Welsh justices under Henry VIII. With the abolition of the Council in 1689, the power of nomination was transferred to the justices of the Court of Great Sessions in Wales. When this court was abolished in 1830, its rights were in turn transferred to the courts of King's Bench, Exchequer, and Commons Pleas. Finally, by an Act of Parliament of 1845, the nomination and appointment of sheriffs in Wales was made identical to that in England.
The position of High Sheriff in the United States generally denotes the superior sheriff in a state, or the head of a state-wide sheriff's department. Such a position exists in Rhode Island (Executive High Sheriff), and Hawaii. In New Hampshire, the ten High Sheriffs are the senior law enforcement officers of each county, and have police powers throughout the state.