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Not to be confused with sherif or sharif. For other uses, see Sheriff (disambiguation).

In principle, a sheriff is a legal official with responsibility for a shire, county or parish. In practice, the specific combination of legal, political and ceremonial duties of a sheriff varies greatly from country to country. For example, in Scotland a sheriff is a judge whereas in neighbouring England the position of sheriff is ceremonial.


The word "sheriff" is a contraction of the term "shire reeve". The term, from the Old English scīrgerefa, designated a royal official responsible for keeping the peace (a "reeve") throughout a shire or county or parish on behalf of the king.[1] The term was preserved in England notwithstanding the Norman Conquest. From the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the term spread to several other regions, at an early point to Scotland, latterly to Ireland and to the United States.

Sheriffs outside the United States[edit]

Sheriffs exist in various countries:

  • Sheriffs are administrative legal officials similar to bailiffs in the Republic of Ireland, Australia, South Africa, and Canada (with expanded duties in certain provinces).
  • Sheriffs are judges in Scotland.
  • Sheriff is a ceremonial position in England, Wales and India.
  • In the United States of America, the scope of a sheriff varies across states and counties/parishes. The sheriff is most often a county or parish official, and serves as the arm of the county or parish court; but some cities, such as those in the Commonwealth of Virginia, also have a sheriff's office that serves as the arm of the city court and jail. The sheriff performs court duties. These may include such functions as administering the county or parish or city jail, providing courtroom security and prisoner transportation, serving warrants and serving process. In urban areas, a sheriff may be restricted to those duties. Many other sheriffs and their deputies may serve as the principal police force.

In British English, the political or legal office of a sheriff is called a shrievalty.

Modern usage[edit]


[clarification needed] The office of sheriff was first established in Australia in 1824. This was simultaneous with the appointment of the first Chief Justice of New South Wales. The role of the sheriff has not been static, nor[clarification needed] is it executing court judgements, acting as a coroner, transporting prisoners, managing the gaols and formerly carrying out executions (through an anonymous hangman).

Australia no longer applies capital punishment. A state government department (usually called the Department of Corrections or similar) now runs the state prison system.

The sheriff is now largely responsible for enforcing the civil orders and fines of the court (seizing and selling the property of judgement debtors who do not satisfy the debt), providing court security, enforcing arrest warrants, evictions, and running the jury system. Some State Sheriffs can also apply sanctions ranging from suspending driving licences and car registration to wheel clamping and arranging community service orders and as a last resort make arrests.


Various jurisdictions in Canada on provincial and sub-provincial levels operate sheriff's departments primarily concerned with court bailiff services such as courtroom security, post-arrest prisoner transfer, serving legal processes and executing civil judgements. Sheriffs are defined under Section 2 of the Criminal Code of Canada as "peace officers". In other parts of Canada not covered by a sheriff's agency, bailiff functions are handled directly by the local provincial police or by Royal Canadian Mounted Police as appropriate.


In 2006, the Province of Alberta expanded the duties[2] of the Provincial Sheriffs department to include tasks such as Court Security and Prisoner Transport, Traffic Enforcement, Executive Protection and 2 Investigation Units (SISU and SCAN). As of June 2008, The Provincial Sheriffs department consists of 105 traffic sheriffs who are assigned to one of seven regions in the province. Sheriffs also assist various Police Services in Alberta with prisoner management.

British Columbia[edit]

BCSS responsibilities include the protection of the Provincial, Supreme and Appeal Courts of BC; planning high-security trials; providing an Intelligence Unit; assessing threats towards public officials and those employed in the Justice system; protecting Judges and Crown Prosecutors; managing detention cells; transporting prisoners by ground and air; managing and providing protection for juries; serving court-related documents; executing court orders and warrants; and assisting with coroner's court.


Main article: Sýslumaður

In Iceland, sheriffs (or magistrates) (Icelandic: sýslumaður (singular), sýslumenn (plural)) are administrators of the state, holders of the executive power in their jurisdiction and heads of their Sheriff's Office. Sheriffs are in charge of certain legal matters that typically involve registration of some sort and executing the orders of the court. The duties of the sheriffs differ slightly depending on their jurisdiction but they can be broadly categorised as:

  • Duties of all sheriffs except in Reykjavík: collection of public fees, publication of licences and permits for various personal and business purposes and more.[4]

There are 24 sheriffs and sheriff jurisdictions in Iceland. The jurisdictions are not defined by the administrative divisions of Iceland but are mainly a mixture of counties and municipalities.

The post of sheriff was mandated by the Old Covenant, an agreement between the Icelandic Commonwealth and the Kingdom of Norway. The agreement which was ratified between 1262 and 1264 makes the post of sheriff the oldest secular position of government still operating in Iceland.[6]


Among cities in India, only Mumbai (Bombay), Kolkata (Calcutta) and Chennai (Madras), the three former British Presidencies, have a sheriff. The sheriff has an apolitical, non-executive role. Sheriffs preside over various city-related functions and conferences and welcome foreign guests. The post is second to the mayor in the protocol list.


In Ireland, a sheriff (Irish: sirriam) can be either:

In both cases sheriffs are charged with enforcing civil judgements against debtors within their bailiwick. Outside Dublin and Cork the County Registrar carries out the functions of the sheriff regarding judgements.

The Dublin and Cork sheriffs also perform all the duties of returning officers in elections (other than local elections) and some other duties concerning pounds. Sheriffs may appoint court messengers, subject to approval of the Minister for Justice, to assist them with their work.


City of Manila[edit]

The Office of Sheriff of Manila was established on 1 July 1901 by the Insular Government during the American Occupation; the inaugural holder was James Peterson.[7] The main duties of the Sheriff and deputies are enforcing official state orders such as warrants of arrest, evictions, civil orders, writs, subpoenas, notices, release orders, and commitment orders, as well as providing court security. The office has three divisions: administrative, criminal, and civil.[8] The Sheriff's official workplace is at the Manila City Hall, located at the northern end of the capital's Ermita district.[9]

United Kingdom[edit]

England and Wales[edit]

The Sheriff of Oxford for the civic year 2008/2009, Cllr John Goddard, speaking shortly after his election as such, with Cllr Susanna Pressel, Lord Mayor of Oxford, next to him.
Main article: High Sheriff

Historically, the Sheriff executed the writs of certain senior courts, with a number of junior officers (under-sheriffs, and below them, sheriff's officers) to assist them. With the increase in the English population over the centuries, the number of sheriff's officers expanded substantially, and the position of Sheriff became more ceremonial.[10]

In modern times, the High Sheriff of an English or Welsh county is an unpaid, partly ceremonial post appointed by the Crown through a Warrant from the Privy Council. Sheriff's officers continue as court officers empowered to enforce High Court writs; in April 2004 they were renamed by the Blair Ministry to High Court enforcement officers.


The first Duchy of Cornwall Charter of 1337 stated that the "Shrievalty of Cornwall" was vested in the Duke of Cornwall, such that the duke has the authority to appoint the High Sheriff in the county.[11] Two further charters dated 18 March 1337 and 3 January 1338 stated that no sheriff of the king shall enter Cornwall to execute the king's writ.

City of London[edit]

In the City of London, the position of sheriff is one of the officers of the Corporation. Two are elected by the liverymen of the City each year to assist the Lord Mayor, attend the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey and present petitions to Parliament: usually one is an alderman and the other is not. The aldermanic sheriff is then likely to become Lord Mayor in due course.

Northern Ireland[edit]

Main article: High Sheriff

High Sheriff is a largely ceremonial position in Northern Ireland, with some functional duties including deputising for Lord Mayor. There are eight High Sheriff positions throughout Northern Ireland: one for each of the counties and for the two major cities of Northern Ireland (the High Sheriff of Belfast and the High Sheriff of Londonderry City).


Main articles: Sheriff Court and Sheriff Principal
See also: Scots law

In Scotland, a sheriff is analogous to a judge and sits in a second-tier court, called the Sheriff Court. The sheriff is legally qualified, in comparison with a lay Justice of the Peace who preside over the first-tier Justice of the Peace Courts.

The sheriff court is a court of first instance for the majority of both civil and criminal cases. However, the court's powers are limited, so that major crimes such as rape or murder and complex or high-value civil cases are dealt with in the High Court (for criminal matters) or the Court of Session (for civil matters).

There are six sheriffdoms in Scotland, each with a Sheriff Principal. Within each sheriffdom there are several Sheriff Courts; each court has at least one courtroom and at least one Sheriff. A Sheriff may sit at different courts throughout the sheriffdom. [1]

Sheriffs are usually advocates and, increasingly, solicitors with at least ten years of legal experience. Until recently, they were appointed by the Scottish Executive, on the advice of the Lord Advocate. However, the Scotland Act 1998 introduced the European Convention of Human Rights into Scots law. A subsequent legal challenge to the impartiality of the sheriffs based on the provisions of the Convention led to the setting up of the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland, which now makes recommendations to the First Minister, who nominates all judicial appointments in Scotland other than in the Justice of the Peace Court. The First Minister in turn makes the recommendation to the Queen.

United States[edit]

Deputy Sheriff in Mogollon, New Mexico, 1940

In the United States, a sheriff is generally, but not always, the highest law enforcement officer of a county/parish. A sheriff is in most cases elected by the population of the county/parish. Except for New York City the sheriff is always a county/parish official and may serve as the arm of the county/parish court. The office may be called "marshal." The scope of a sheriff varies across states and counties/parishes. In some states the sheriff is officially titled "High Sheriff", although the title is rarely used. In urban areas a sheriff may be restricted to court duties such as administering the county/parish jail, providing courtroom security and prisoner transport, serving warrants, and serving process. Sheriffs may also patrol outside of the city or town limits, or inside by agreement with the city;[12] in these areas, sheriffs and their deputies serve as the principal police force.

The political election of a person to serve as a police leader is chiefly an American tradition. The practice has been followed in the British Channel Island of Jersey since at least the 16th century.[13] A sworn law enforcement officer working for a sheriff is called a "sheriff's deputy", "sheriff's officer", or something similar, and is authorized to perform the sheriff's duties. In some states, a sheriff may not be a sworn officer, but merely an elected official in charge of sworn officers. These officers may be subdivided into "general deputies" and "special deputies". In some places, the sheriff has the responsibility to recover any deceased persons within their county/parish, in which case the full title is "sheriff-coroner". In some counties/parishes, the sheriff's principal deputy is the warden of the county/parish jail or other local correctional institution.

In some areas of the United States, the sheriff is also responsible for collecting the taxes and may have other titles such as tax collector or county/parish treasurer. The sheriff may also be responsible for the county/parish civil defense, emergency disaster service, rescue service, or emergency management.

In the United States, the relationship between the sheriff and other police departments varies widely from state to state, and indeed in some states from county/parish to county/parish. In the northeastern United States, the sheriff's duties have been greatly reduced with the advent of state-level law enforcement agencies, especially the state police and local agencies such as the county police. In Vermont, for instance, the elected sheriff is primarily an officer of the County Court, whose duties include running the county jail and serving papers in lawsuits and foreclosures.[clarification needed] Law enforcement patrol is performed as well, in support of State Police and in the absence of a municipal police agency in rural towns. In Delaware, the sheriff's duties are limited to serving civil process and conducting foreclosure auctions.[14]

By contrast, in other municipalities, the sheriff's office may be merged with most or all city-level police departments within a county/parish to form a consolidated city-county/parish or metropolitan police force responsible for general law enforcement anywhere in the county. The sheriff in such cases serves simultaneously as sheriff and chief of the consolidated police department. Examples include the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office in Florida, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the Miami-Dade Police Department. Sheriff offices may coexist with other county/parish level law enforcement agencies such as county/parish police, county/parish park police, or county/parish detectives.

In Virginia since 1871, cities have been completely independent jurisdictions which are not part of any county at all. In those cities, the sheriff handles jails, courtroom security and serves all civil process — subpoenas, evictions, etc. However, in some counties that have created separate county police departments, the sheriff's office shares law enforcement duties.[citation needed]

The New York City Sheriff is appointed by the mayor. His jurisdiction is all five county-boroughs of New York City — Kings, Queens, Richmond, Bronx and New York counties.

The sheriffs of Middlesex County and Suffolk County, Massachusetts have ceremonial duties at Harvard University commencement exercises. In a tradition dating to the 17th century, the Sheriffs lead the President's Procession, and the Sheriff of Middlesex County formally opens and adjourns the proceedings.[15][16][17]

There are also states in the United States that do not have sheriffs, such as Connecticut. In Connecticut, where county government has been abolished, the state and local police have sole responsibility for law enforcement.

Missouri has a county that eliminated the position of elected sheriff in 1955; the St. Louis County Police Department has an appointed police chief that performs the duties of the sheriff. Colorado has two counties that have appointed sheriffs rather than elected officials like the other 62 counties. Denver and Broomfield are city-and-county entities, which are required to have and/or perform a sheriff function. Denver's "sheriff" is the manager of safety, who is appointed by the mayor to oversee the fire, police and sheriff departments and is the ex officio sheriff. The position was created in 1916 to oversee the fire and police chiefs as well as the undersheriff who oversees the sheriff department. The Denver Sheriff Department is responsible for the operation of the correctional facilities as well as serving the courts per state law. Broomfield evolved from four counties in 2001. The Broomfield Police Department performs all "sheriff" functions under an appointed police chief, who acts as the sheriff per state law.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary:sheriff, Online Etymology Dictionary:reeve
  2. ^ "Alberta sheriffs make highway debut this weekend". CBC. September 1, 2006. Retrieved 2008-06-03. [dead link]
  3. ^ "Verkefni allra sýslumanna" [Tasks of all sheriffs] (in Icelandic). Retrieved 31 January 2012. 
  4. ^ "Verkefni sýslumanna utan Reykjavíkur" [Tasks of sheriffs outside Reykjavík] (in Icelandic). Retrieved 31 January 2012. 
  5. ^ "Sérstök verkefni sýslumanna" [Special tasks of sheriffs] (in Icelandic). Retrieved 31 January 2012. 
  6. ^ "Saga sýslumanna" [History of sheriffs] (in Icelandic). Retrieved 31 January 2012. Sýslumanna er fyrst getið hérlendis í einu handriti að sáttmála þeim sem Íslendingar gerðu við Noregskonung og öðlaðist staðfestingu á árunum 1262 til 1264 og síðar var nefndur Gamli sáttmáli, en með sáttmála þessum má segja að Íslendingar hafi gerst þegnar Noregskonungs. Eru sýslumenn elstu veraldlegu embættismenn sem enn starfa hérlendis og hafa alla tíð verið mikilvægur hluti stjórnsýslunnar. 
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ William A. Morris, "The Office of Sheriff in the Anglo-Saxon Period," English Historical Review (1916) 31#121 pp. 20-40 in JSTOR
  11. ^ A Charter of 1337
  12. ^ "Orange County, California Sheriff Patrol Areas". Retrieved 20 June 2012. 
  13. ^ Balleine's History of Jersey
  14. ^ McLaughlin, Michael (4 June 2012). "Weak Sheriff Fights To Make Arrests". Huffington Post. 
  15. ^ "Commence Wonderment, Harvard Gazette May 26, 2010". Retrieved 2011-01-06. 
  16. ^ "Harvard Commencement 2009 Adjourned By The High Sheriff Of Middlesex County". Retrieved 2011-01-06. 
  17. ^ "The Spirit & Spectacle of Harvard Commencement". Retrieved 2011-01-06. 
  18. ^ Lenny Ortiz, "Denver Behind Bars" 2004

External links[edit]