Keeper of the peace

PUBLISHED: 11:58 08 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013

Anne Gee, High Sheriff of Shropshire, talks to Dave Hancock about the ancient and modern duties of the Sovereign's representative

Anne Gee, High Sheriff of Shropshire, talks to Dave Hancock about the ancient and modern duties of the Sovereign's representative

Magistrate pricked by Queen can't sit for a year.
It's a tabloid headline writer's dream. It's even true. Anne Gee MBE JP, a magistrate in Shropshire for 33 years has been chosen as the County's High Sheriff in a dated process which involves the monarch sticking a silver bodkin through her name. Consequently Anne will not sit on the bench in judgement for the 12 months she is High Sheriff.
High Sheriffs pre-date John Wayne movies and the Norman Conquest and the office is the oldest continuous secular one under the Crown. For centuries, to be High Sheriff in a county was to be 'it' but after 1908, the Lord Lieutenant was given the top spot as the Sovereign's personal representative.
Anne says: "I'm the Sovereign's representative in Shropshire for all matters relating to the judiciary and the maintenance of law and order. Effectively, I keep The Queen's peace in the county."
One of the High Sheriff's duties Anne will not be performing is overseeing executions. She would, however, proclaim the accession of a new sovereign, act as the returning officer for parliamentary elections and be present for the visit of royalty. High Sheriffs in other counties have responsibilities to High Court judges - there is no High Court in Shropshire.
Instead, the county has magistrates' courts - places where Anne spends a lot of time. Not that she's a felon of course but a Justice of the Peace. She says: "After our children went to school, I was approached to become a magistrate. There's a tremendous amount of training involved, which usually takes place on Saturdays and evenings. I sit in the Criminal Court and, until about six years ago, the youth and family courts. You are expected to do 28 sittings a year but most of us do about 40 or more.
"Ninety-five per cent of all offences are heard in magistrates' courts - everything from unpaid parking fines to drugs case and serious assaults. I sit with two other magistrates and in some serious cases we decide whether to hear it or refer it to the Crown court."
Dealing with up to 60 motoring cases in a day for reimbursement of her expenses only certainly requires dedication. She can at least set this aside for 12 months - Anne cannot sit as a magistrate during her term as High Sheriff. She expects to be busy though. "The High Sheriff supports the emergency services and the courts," she says. "I hope to visit as many police, fire and ambulance stations as possible as well as the prisons."
The High Sheriff can also choose something to promote during their year in office and Anne has opted for volunteering. She says: "I want to help acknowledge the work of the many volunteers in Shropshire and encourage more young people to volunteer. I'll be meeting people from charitable organisations and on 23 September, there's a special event at Shrewsbury Football Club for schoolchildren called Viva Volunteering to show volunteering can be good fun.
If you want to be the High Sheriff in Shropshire, you must not be a Peer of Parliament, a Member of the House of Commons, European Parliament or Welsh Assembly; a full-time member of the Judiciary (including Special Commissioners or Officers of Customs and Excise or Inland Revenue); an Officer of the Post Office or of the Navy, Army or Royal Air Force on full pay. You must be patient - High Sheriffs are chosen three years in advance so Anne's successor and their successor are already known.
A High Sheriff County Consultation Panel considers nominees and Anne was proposed five years ago by a previous High Sheriff. She and her husband, Ron, can justifiably claim Salopian citizenship. They moved to the county 44 years ago, expecting to be here just two years. Instead, they brought up two daughters and ran their own financial services company in Shrewsbury until 2000. Anne was a founder director of Shropshire and Mid Wales Hospice and is involved with the WI.
The silver bodkin-wielding Sovereign makes the actual selection of new High Sheriffs annually in a meeting of the Privy Council. In days of yore and corruption, attempts were made to change the appointed High Sheriffs by altering their names on the roll. A pricked hole prevented this.
If you don't like that story, try this one: Queen Anne was doing needlework when she was asked to approve a new High Sheriff. Unable to locate a Biro, she pricked the list with a needle.
Anne says: "Each year, the names of High Sheriffs are set out on a continuous roll of vellum and The Queen does indeed prick it. You can't be sworn in until your name has been pricked."
The swearing in ceremony is less arcane - the new incumbent chooses the location and the only requirement is that a JP must be present to witness the Declaration. Anne selected St Michael's and All Angels church in All Stretton and formally received the ribbon and crossed swords badge (which you see her wearing in the photograph) from the previous High Sheriff.

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