The SA Board for Sheriffs
The SA Board for Sheriffs is a statuatory body established under section 7 of the Sheriffs’ Act and has as its objects the maintenance of the esteem of; the enhancement of the status of, and the improvement of the standard of training of and functions performed by sheriffs. Its general functions are set out in section 16 of the Sheriffs’ Act. It also plays an indirect role in the appointment of sheriffs through it’s control over the issuing of Fidelity Fund Certificates, without which a person is not entitled to function as a sheriff.
The definition section of the Sheriffs’ Act (section1) does not define the term “sheriff” by giving content to the term, but merely states that a sheriff means “a sheriff appointed under section 2(1)”. In terms of section 2 the Minister for Justice appoints sheriffs. The Sheriffs Act, itself does not detail the functions of sheriffs, but provides in section 3 that “a sheriff shall perform within the area of jurisdiction of the lower or superior court for which he has been appointed the functions assigned by or under any law to a sheriff of the court”. Their functions are set out in various pieces of legislation, including the Supreme Court Act and the Magistrates Courts Act, along with the respective set of rules for each Act. However sheriffs are also bound by the Code of Conduct in performing their duties. They are accountable to the State and the Board is entitled to take disciplinary action against sheriffs for improper conduct. According to the Sheriffs Act, the Minister also has disciplinary powers over sheriffs, inter alia, suspending them, removing them from the office and appointing inspectors to investigate allegations of irregularities against them.
A sheriff may appoint a deputy sheriff (“deputy”) who may, subject to the sheriff’s directions, perform the functions of that sheriff. However in appointing a deputy, the sheriff needs to get approval of the Board, which may grant the approval subject to conditions.
In practice, deputies perform most of the functions assigned to sheriffs and consequently most interaction between sheriffs’ offices and the public occurs via deputies. As employer and holder of concession from the State, the sheriff is accountable for his deputy’s actions.
The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development
The Minister for Justice and Constitutional Development (“The Minister”) is responsible for the appointment of sheriffs, as well as the appointment of the Chairperson of the Board. The Minister may also remove a sheriff from office, and may authorise any person to charge sheriff with misconduct if sound reason exists for do so.
The offices of the sheriff for the Supreme Court and messenger of the court for lower courts were formally introduced in 1827. The first Act promulgated affecting the structure and functions of the sheriff profession was the resident Magistrates’ Court Act 1944 (Act 32 of 1944). Deputy sheriffs and messengers of the court were appointed by the Minister for Justice under section 35 of the Supreme Court Act in 1959 (Act 59 of 1959) and section 14 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act, respectively. The Sheriffs Act, came into operation on 1 March 1990. The Sheriffs Amendment Act, (Act 74 of 1998) was implemented on 1 March 1999.
The sheriffs’ profession in South Africa was historically a divided one. In the then Supreme Court, the sheriff was also the Registrar of the Court and thus a state employee. Other officials of sheriff services in the Supreme Court were known as deputy-sheriffs, who were not state employees, but private practitioners, (most of whom were practicing attorneys, in addition to their sheriff functions). The Registrar appointed deputy-sheriffs.
In the Magistrates’ Courts, sheriffs were known as messengers of the court. In metropolitan areas, messengers were public servants under the authority of the cheif magistrate. In rural magisterial districts, messengers often performed other functions in addition to their messenger duties. In response to a flow of complaints regarding the quality and efficiency of the service, the State decided to privatise sheriffs services. This change came into effect in April 1969. In terms of this process, sheriffs were no longer civil servants but were independent entrepreneurs. They still remained accountable to the State and certain of their obligations to the State remained circumscribed in the legislation.