Wednesday 8 May 2024

The Shrievalty in Northern Ireland

Inaugural meeting of the High Sheriffs' Association of Northern Ireland

The inaugural Annual General Meeting of the High Sheriffs' Association of Northern Ireland was held on the 2nd May, 2023, and hosted generously by the Law Society of Northern Ireland. 

This was followed by a reception to celebrate the new association at The Inn of Court, Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast, and hosted by the Lady Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, the Rt Hon Dame Siobhan Keegan DBE, and the Judiciary.

Both the AGM and the Reception afterwards were attended by the Chair of the High Sheriffs’ Association of England and Wales, Lieutenant- Colonel Andrew Tuggey, CBE, DL, and their Honorary Secretary, James Williams, Esq, MBE.

Below is an extract of an article recently published in The High Sheriff Magazine which provides a detailed explanation of the role of the Shrievalty in Northern Ireland.


IT is important to understand the Shrievalty in Ireland in a historical context as it provides a background to why the role of Sheriff in Northern Ireland has developed in a different way to England and Wales.

The Shrievalty in Ireland has the same origins as the Shrievalty in England and Wales, with the first recorded Sheriff in Dublin in 1258 and the first recorded Sheriff in County Antrim in 1343.

By the 17th Century, the Sheriffs presided over a form of local government called the ‘Grand Jury,’ of which there were forty in Ireland, initially concerned with the administration of Justice.

The office in all previous and subsequent legislation was described simply as Sheriff, save for one solitary reference, in section VIII of the Sheriffs Act (Ireland), 1725, where the role is described as High Sheriff.

By the 19th Century, the Grand Juries had been assigned a range of other local functions and would have been the only form of local government prior to the Local Authorities of today.

The Grand Jury (Ireland) Act, 1836, further extended their powers until the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898 which created County Councils, took over all but the legal powers of the Grand Jury and its control over elections.

Chain of Office of High Sheriff of Belfast

These remaining powers were subsequently transferred to legally qualified Sub-Sheriffs leaving the ‘High Sheriff’ with a mainly ceremonial role.

After the creation of the Irish Republic and subsequently the Republic of Ireland, the office of Sheriff in the Republic of Ireland was abolished by the Court Offices Act 1926. 

In Northern Ireland, the Grand Jury continued to hold their assizes, which was an antecedent to the High Court, and the wording of the Warrant and Declaration of the Sheriff was governed by the Sheriff’s (Ireland) Act 1920 with the role of Under-Sheriff being abolished in 1982.

However, the Northern Ireland Office continued to use the term ‘High Sheriff’ when the names of the Sheriffs for the following year were published in the Belfast Gazette until 1989, when it was brought into line with England and Wales.

In 1969, the Grand Jury was abolished with the role of Sheriff being appointed by the Secretary of State on behalf of the Queen and subsequently, the King.

The incoming Sheriff is officially notified by letter and is sent a warrant of appointment, signed by the Secretary of State and a ‘declaration of Sheriff’, which is sworn before a Commissioner of Oaths; and this process remains the same today with our term being the calendar year.

There are currently eight Sheriffs in Northern Ireland; one for each county, and one for each county borough being the cities of Londonderry and Belfast.

Each outgoing Sheriff nominates a successor except in Belfast where councillors put forward a nominee, who is always a serving member.

Badge of High Sheriff of Londonderry City

The duties today may well resonate with our counterparts in England and Wales, with the three official functions being to attend High Court Judges when they preside over a case in the county, to attend the first arrival of members of the Royal Family in the County on an official visit and lastly, the proclamation of an Accession following the death of the Monarch.

In County Antrim, when the Grand Jury was abolished and the chattels sold, a bursary was created by the representatives of the Grand Jury with the approval of the Minister of Finance, for the promotion and encouragement of legal education in Queen’s University Belfast.

The duties of administering and judging applicants of the bursary would be one of the additional duties carried out by the Sheriff of County Antrim.

High Sheriff's badge

The last time the ceremonial uniform of Court Dress was worn in County Antrim was in 1964 by Sir William Moore Bt, and it was subsequently decided that the wearing of such a distinctive uniform as the Crown Representative of the Judiciary would cease.

In some counties, a badge of office was acquired to wear with business attire.

The role of the Sheriff in Ireland is founded on the same basis as England and Wales but has by necessity evolved in a slightly different way, becoming a meritocratic position which is being increasingly valued for the support it can provide to the Judiciary and the local community.

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