A sheriff is different things in different countries. In India, they preside over various city-related functions and conferences, in a non-political and non-executive role, and welcome foreign guests. In Northern Ireland, the High Sheriff is a largely ceremonial position, with some functional duties including deputising for the Lord Mayor. In Scotland a sheriff is a judge. In the United States, generally, he is the highest law enforcement officer of a country.

In South Africa, sheriffs are officials who serve documents initiating legal proceedings and execute the writs and judgments of the courts. So, if there is a judgment against you for the payment of money, and you don’t pay, the sheriff will come along and attach your possessions and sell them (in execution) in order that your judgment debt be satisfied. Avoid having anything to do with the Sheriff if you can!

The Sheriffs Act 1986 regulates the conduct of sheriffs,1 establishes a board and a fidelity fund for sheriffs, and provides for matters connected therewith. The Act falls under the authority of the Minister of Justice. Sheriffs are executives of the Court process, and have fairly extensive powers.

A. Sheriff’s obligations: levies and accounts

  1. Every year, each sheriff must pay a levy to the Board.2 It is an offence to fail to do so.3

  2. Every sheriff must keep a trust account with a bank, into which he must deposit all moneys held or received by him for any reason.4 It is an offence to fail to do so.5

  3. Each sheriff must keep a separate record of moneys deposited or invested in, or paid out of the bank accounts he has, and such records must be audited by a registered auditor at least one a year.6 Any sheriff who fails to do this commits an offence.7

  4. The Board may require that the auditor’s report (or any statement or other document relating to the sheriff’s bank accounts) be submitted to it.8 It is a crime not to comply with a request in this regard.9

  1. Any sheriff who makes a false return in respect of the service or execution of any process commits an offence.10

  2. Any sheriff who embezzles, or fraudulently conceals or destroys any process is guilty of an offence.11

  3. It is a crime to make an arrangement with any person to buy, or to buy and dispose of, property offered for sale in execution:12

    • on behalf of the sheriff; or
    • in a manner which results in an improper personal gain for the sheriff; or
    • in a manner which will restrict or is likely to restrict the proceeds of such sale.

C. Fidelity Fund

  1. No person may perform the functions of a sheriff unless he is the holder of a Fidelity Fund Certificate, and he has adequate professional indemnity insurance.13 It is a crime to do otherwise.14

  2. Any Fidelity Fund Certificate which is cancelled by the Board must be returned within 30 days.15 It is an offence to fail to do so.16

  3. If any person makes a statement which he knows to be false or misleading in an application for a Fidelity Fund Certificate he is guilty of an offence.17

D. Impersonation

  1. It is an offence to:18
    • practise or perform any functions assigned by, or under any law to a sheriff;
    • hold yourself out as or pretend to be a sheriff; or
    • make use of any name, title or addition or description creating the impression that you are a sheriff, if you have not been lawfully appointed as a sheriff.
  2. It is a crime to give yourself out to be an inspector (who is an official appointed by the Minister or by the Board).19

E. Inquiries into improper conduct

  1. Any inspector appointed by the Minister or by the Board may:20
    • at any reasonable time enter the office of any sheriff;
    • require the production of any Fidelity Fund Certificate;
    • seize any cancelled Fidelity Fund Certificate;
    • examine any book, record or other document relating to the functions of the sheriff, or make extracts therefrom or copies thereof;
    • for the purposes of any prosecution under the Act, or any charge of improper conduct, seize and retain any book, record or other document.

    It is a crime to hinder or obstruct an inspector in the exercise of these powers.21

  2. Any person who has been duly summoned to appear at an inquiry, and who fails to attend at the time and place specified in the summons, is guilty of an offence.22

  3. Any person who has been duly summoned to appear at an inquiry, and who fails to remain in attendance until excused from further attendance, is guilty of an offence.23

  4. If you have been called as a witness and you refuse to be sworn or to make affirmation as a witness, you commit a crime.24

  5. It is a crime to fail to answer fully and satisfactorily any question lawfully put to you.25

  6. It is a crime to fail to produce any book, document or thing in your possession or custody or under your control which you were required to produce.26
  1. The term sheriff, for present purposes, includes acting sheriffs and deputy sheriffs. 

  2. Section 19(1). 

  3. Section 60(1)(a). 

  4. Section 22(1). 

  5. Section 60(1)(a). 

  6. Section 23(1). 

  7. Section 60(1)(a). 

  8. Section 23(3). 

  9. Section 60(1)(b). 

  10. Section 60(1A)(a). 

  11. Section 60(1A)(b). 

  12. Section 60(1A)(c). 

  13. Section 30. 

  14. Section 60(1)(a). 

  15. Section 34(3). 

  16. Section 60(1)(a). 

  17. Section 61(1)(d). 

  18. Section 60(1)(gA). 

  19. Section 60(1)(i) read with section 56(1). 

  20. Section 57(2). 

  21. Section 60(1)(h). 

  22. Section 60(1)(e)(i). 

  23. Section 60(1)(e)(ii). 

  24. Section 60(1)(f) read with section 48(1)(b). 

  25. Section 60(1)(g)(i) read with section 41(1)(c). 

  26. Section 60(1)(g)(ii) read with section 48(1)(c).