The History of the Sheriff's Office

The Office of the Sheriff has its origins in Anglo Saxon Times and was founded in 992. The title 'Sheriff' is derived from the word's 'Shire Reeve' when the Sheriff was the administrative officer for each Shire or County in Medieval England. Indeed the office is the oldest known to English law.

The Sheriff was the most powerful person in the Shire and over the years had a variety of responsibilities. Early Sheriffs collected revenue on behalf of the King and were responsible for the apprehension of criminals.

After the Norman Conquest of 1066 the Sheriff assumed responsibility for all departments of administration in the counties. This period also saw the first juries and the commencement of the Sheriff's responsibility for the administration of juries which still remains today.

The power of the Sheriff declined after the thirteenth century and the signing of Magna Carta in 1215. The power of the King was also reduced during this time, however the Magna Carta still made significant reference to the office of Sheriff.

By the eighteenth century and the early settling of Australia there was a great diminution in the powers of the Sheriff. The early Australian Sheriff was reduced to a role of court attendant and gaoler. With the introduction of a dedicated police service, the Sheriff's role as keeper of the peace also disappeared.

The first Sheriffs appointed in Australia were in the colonies of New South Wales in 1788 (a Provost Marshal) and Van Diemen's Land in 1824. There is now a Sheriff in each State and Territory of Australia, each with varying responsibilities.

The Sheriff's Office in the Northern Territory

The Sheriff's Office in the Northern Territory has its origins with the passing of the Sheriff Ordinance 1911. The Ordinance was passed to coincide with the establishment of the first Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. Prior to 1911 the Sheriff of South Australia assumed responsibility for the then Northern Territory of South Australia.

The early Sheriffs held a number of appointments including Clerk of Courts, Public Trustee, Registrar-General and Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages. The holder of the office was basically responsible for all things to do with legal administration.

The Sheriff was appointed by the Commonwealth Attorney-General until 1979. The Northern Territory Attorney-General now appoints the Sheriff.

Today, the position of the Sheriff is created by the Sheriff Act 1979 which commenced on 1 October 1979. As an officer of the Supreme Court the Sheriff performs administrative functions under a variety of acts including the Supreme Court Act 1988, Juries Act 1980 and Court Security Act 1998.

As Marshal in Admiralty the Sheriff is also responsible for the execution of arrest warrants and custody of vessels under the Commonwealth Admiralty Act 1988.

The Sheriff also holds appointment as Deputy Marshal under the High Court of Australia Act 1979 and Deputy Sheriff under the Federal Court of Australia Act 1976 and the Industrial Relations Act.

The Sheriff is appointed as Criminal Registrar under the Rules of the Supreme Court.

The Sheriff's main areas of responsibility are:

  • Administering the jury system
  • The custody and escort of prisoners within the Supreme Court building in Darwin
  • The provision of court orderly services for the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory
  • The management of the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeal registries

Joseph Wesley Nichols who held the office from 1933 - 1954 at one stage held 26 positions and was described by a local newspaper as being the 'best known man in the Northern Territory'. He was made a Member of the British Empire for his services to the community and the site of the Darwin Magistrates Court now bears his name.

Karen Jackson who held office from 1987 - 1993 was the first female to be Sheriff of a State or Territory in Australia. As Marshal in Admiralty she also oversaw the largest known admiralty sale in Australia if not the world in 1988. Three bulk carriers arrested in Darwin Harbour were sold at auction for US$24.5M. Ms Jackson was also required to exercise her powers under the age-old custom of 'praying tales' on 7 February 1992. During a trial where there were 11 co-accused all cards in the jury ballot were exhausted. The Chief Justice of time, Austin Asche, asked Ms Jackson to obtain persons from the vicinity of the Court to attend as jurors.

Holders of The Office of Sheriff

Current Holder

Daniel McGregor 2015 -
Nicholas Holtze 1908
Henry Ernest Carey 1916
Frederick Thomas Macartney 1924 - 1933
Joseph Wesley Nichols MBE 1933 - 1954
Kenneth James Bagshaw 1954 - 1959
John Willoughby O'Callaghan 1959 - 1961 (Acting 26.11.1956, 25.02.1957 & 29.11.1958)
Mathew Gerald Dwyer 1961 - 1963 (Acting 08.02.1960 - 22.04.1960)
Kenneth James Bagshaw 1963 - 1964
Edmund Calvert 1964 - 1965
Andrew Hogg 1965 - 1968
Sylvester Michael Murphy 1968 - 1971
Ronald Ian Thomas 1971 - 1974
David Vaughn Dawes 1974 - 1975
Klaus Hans Jurgen Wessels 1975 - 1976
Dennis Arnold Griffith 1976 - 1977
Warwick Charles Bourke 1977 - 1986
John Dill Tedford 1986 - 1987
Karen Eleanor Jackson 1987 - 1993
Colin Joseph LaPorte 1993 - 1995
Christopher John Cox 1995 - 2003
Peter Donald Wilson 2003 - 2015
Angela Curtis 2013 - 2014
Alexis Seubert 2014 - 2015