The office existed in what is now the Republic of Ireland but was abolished there in 1926.
In England and Wales, the term high sheriff arose to distinguish sheriffs of counties proper from sheriffs of cities and boroughs designated "counties-of-themselves" but not counties properly speaking. These cities and boroughs no longer have sheriffs except for the City of London, so now all English and Welsh sheriffs except the sheriffs of the City of London are high sheriffs. The office is now an unpaid privilege with ceremonial duties, the sheriffs being appointed annually by the Crown through a warrant from the Privy Council except in Cornwall, where the high sheriff is appointed by the Duke of Cornwall. In England and Wales the office's civil (civil judgement) enforcement powers exist but are not exercised by convention. The office was termed that of sheriff until 1 April 1974, except in the City of London, which has two sheriffs.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the high sheriff (or in the City of London the sheriffs) are theoretically the sovereign's judicial representative in the county, while the Lord Lieutenant is the sovereign's personal and military representative. Their jurisdictions, the "shrieval counties", are no longer co-terminous with administrative areas, representing a mix between the ancient counties and more recent local authority areas. The post contrasts with that of sheriff in Scotland, who is a judge sitting in a sheriff court.
The word "sheriff" is a contraction of the term "shire reeve". The term, from the Old English scīrgerefa, designated a royal official responsible for keeping the peace (a "reeve") throughout a shire or county on behalf of the king. The term was preserved in England notwithstanding the Norman Conquest. The office of sheriff had its origins in the 10th century; the office reached the height of its power under the Norman kings. While the sheriffs originally had been men of great standing at court, the thirteenth century saw a process whereby the office devolved on significant men within each county, usually landowners. The Provisions of Oxford (1258) established a yearly tenure of office. The appointments and duties of the sheriffs in England and Wales were redefined by the Sheriffs Act 1887. Under the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972, on 1 April 1974 the office previously known as sheriff was retitled "high sheriff".
The serving high sheriff submits a list of names of possible future high sheriffs to a tribunal which chooses three names to put to the Sovereign. The nomination is made on 12 November every year and the term of office runs from 25 March, the first day of the year until 1751. No person may be appointed twice in three years, unless there is no other suitable person in the county.