Northern Territory Sheriff History

The office of Sheriff of the Northern Territory can trace its history to just 1933, with the appointment of the first incumbent in Joseph Wesley Nicholls. The Commonwealth Attorney General appointed the Sheriff until 1988, when the Territory was granted self government. The Northern Territory Attorney General now appoints the Sheriff.

The small size of the Northern Territory’s population initially lent itself to the Office being performed as one of a number of roles by the same individual. This is a characteristic shared with Australia’s other numerically small jurisdiction, Tasmania. The Office’s first incumbent, Joseph Nicholls, exemplifies this characteristic and reveals qualities of the discharge of the Office that are unique to the Northern Territory.

Nicholls was a World War 1 veteran who had served overseas in the Australian Light Horse. He came to the Territory in 1926 from Brighton in Victoria to take up a position as a Police Clerk. In 1933 he was appointed Sheriff, by which time he was also Clerk and Bailiff to the Local Court, Clerk of the Supreme Court, Registrar of companies, Registrar of Bankruptcy, Registrar General, Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Marshal of the High court and Territory Returning Officer. By 1950, after holding the position of Sheriff for seventeen years, he possessed twenty-six positions.

Also in that year, a Northern Territory newspaper described Nicholls as the “best known man in the Northern Territory”. The same article describes Nicholls’ curious obligation of writing letters to himself, to which he was required to reply in another of his official capacities. In the early 1950s, a letter was simply addressed to “Mr J.W. Nicholls, Everything, Alice Springs”.

Nicholls was awarded an M.B.E. for his services to the community. The site of the Magistrates’s Courts and Registrar General’s Offices in Alice Springs bear the name of one of the Territory’s most famous citizens, Nicholls Place.

The holders of the office of Sheriff in the Northern Territory are:-
  • Joseph Wesley Nicholls «‹›» 1933 – 1955
  • Kenneth James Bagshaw «‹›» 1961 – 1962
  • Mathew Gerald Dwyer «‹›» 1962 – 1963
  • Andrew Hogg «‹›» 1963 – 1964
  • Sylvester Michael Murphy «‹›» 1965 – 1967
  • John Flynn «‹›» 1968 – 1969
  • Ronald Ian Thomas «‹›» 1969 – 1973
  • David Daws «‹›» 1974 – 1975
  • Klaus Wessels «‹›» 1975 – 1976
  • Dennis Griffiths «‹›» 1977 – 1979
  • Warwick Bourke «‹›» 1980 – 1986
  • John Tedford «‹›» 1986 – 1987
  • Karen Eleanor Jackson «‹›» 1987 – date

(the records do not provide details of appointments between 1955 and 1960.)

It would seem that Ms. Jackson has the honour of being the first female to be appointed Sheriff of a state or territory in Australia.

The Office of the Sheriff is created by the Sheriff Act, 1980. The Sheriff’s Division however, performs statutory and administrative functions under various Acts, principally the Sheriff Act, the Supreme Court Act, 1988 and the Juries Act, 1980, as well as additional operational services for the Department such as security of the present Law Courts Building in Mitchell Street.

The Division comprises of the Sheriff, Deputy Sheriff both in Darwin and Alice Springs, Jury Administration Officer, Criminal Clerk in both Darwin and Alice Springs and four full-time Sheriff’s Officers. There is also a contractural arrangement with the Alice Springs Supreme Court wherein a private licensed agent holds an appointment as Deputy Sheriff, Civil Executions, on an annual basis.

The major operational functions of the Sheriff’s Division are:

  • the provision of a jury service for the criminal sittings of the Supreme Court in Darwin and Alice Springs
  • the maintenance of an effective security service to the courts on a daily basis, during working hours
  • requisitioning of prisoners from the gaol to attend at court as required
  • the provision of court orderly services
  • the provision of a jury tea attendant
  • the service and execution of civil processes issued from the territory, interstate and overseas courts
  • the enforcement and execution of admiralty arrests issued through the Supreme Court

Ms. Jackson, as Marshal in Admiralty for the Northern Territory, holds the honour of administering what must be the largest sale conducted in Australia, if not the world, under the admiralty legislation.

In 1988 after arresting three bulk carriers in Darwin Harbour she sold the ships for $US24.5M. Below are extracts from the “Northern Territory News” and one from the England journal of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, ‘The Shipbroker’, referring to this exercise.

Extracts from ‘Northern Territory News’ of 23 and 25 August, 1988:-


By Lorraine Dale

A broker representing three Cyprus-based shipping companies paid $US24.05 million today for three 30,000-tonne bulk carriers auctioned on behalf of the N.T. Supreme Court. The Kalapa was sold for $US8.2 million, the Adselphi for $US8.3 million and the oldest of the three ships, Acacia I for $US7.55 million. The buyers were the Expedient Maritime Company, Rotary Shippers and Peramos. Representatives from all over the world attended the auction at the Sheraton in Darwin, conducted for the N.T. Admiralty, Sheriff by Braemar ship Brokers of London. The ships, belonging to the Maritima group of companies, have been in Darwin Harbor since they were arrested last November because of an ownership dispute.


By Lorraine Dale

One of the most unusual public auctions in Australia will be held in Darwin on Thursday. Three 30,000-tonne bulk carriers, which have become a familiar sight in Darwin Harbor in the past nine months, will be auctioned under instructions of the Northern Territory Admiralty Marshal, Ms Karen Jackson. The three ships, Kalapati, Acacia I and Adelfa are owned by three Panamanian-registered companies of the Maritima Group. Ms Jackson said there had been world-wide interest in the auction, which will be conducted by Braemar Ship Brokers of London at the Sheraton Hotel in Darwin at 11 am. “It is unique,” she said. “I don’t think there has been a judicial auction on this scale anywhere in Australia.” A reserve price and special conditions, known to the interested parties had been set for the sale. The sister ships were built in Brazil in 1981/82. Each of the Phillipine-registered ships has a crew of 13 Filipinos. The ships have been in Darwin Harbor since they were arrested last November after legal action brought by a UK firm. Sovereign Shipping Enterprises, which is disputing ownership. They are being managed on behalf of the N.T. Supreme Court by ships agents. Acomarit of Scotland, represented in Darwin by Captain Greg Copley. A Darwin lawyer representing Sovereign Shipping, Ms Judith Kelly, said the dispute was unresolved and litigations would probably continue in the court after the sale.

Extract from England Journal of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, ‘The Shipbrokers’, Winter, 1988:


Bill Bray, MICS, a director of Braemar Shipping, tells of how he brought the hammer down in Darwin

A Typical August day in the life of a shipbroker - wet and boring. The phone rings - Australia calling. Would I be willing to act as sole broker in the disposal of three modern bulk carriers under arrest in Darwin? A great deal of thought was given to this enquiry – all of one second to say yes!

This first call was then followed up by an official letter of appointment from the Admiralty Marshal in Darwin with instructions to advertise the sale by public auction which would take place in Darwin within a period of three weeks.

From that moment on, August was anything but boring.

With the ships in such a remote position I thought that we may have a problem in attracting buyers – how wrong can you be. Immediately the initial advertisement appeared, the market began climbing with the result that a total of 63 enquiries was received from a number of well known owners and some from exotic locations and members of the public who, let us say, had delusions of grandeur.

A couple of days prior to the auction, I arrived in Darwin and the first Australian surprise. The Admiralty Marshal turned out to be a very attractive and vivacious lady – sufficient to gladden any jaded shipbroker’s heart!

Later that day, I had to obtain my auctioneer’s licence from the local constabulary. This involved the visit to my room of a rather large Australian who seemed more interested in consuming tinnies than actually assessing my suitability as an auctioneer! I must have passed the test since the papers were duly handed over.

Darwin turned out to be much more than the frontier town described by colleagues. However, it is fair to say that the Institute dinner could be held in the Main Street at 8pm and there would be no casualties. The whole of the Northern Territories is some five times larger than Great Britain and has a population of about 140,000.

Auction day proved quite an event. Both the Admiralty Marshal and the auctioneer admitted to a certain amount of nerves – soon to be overcome. The auction room was crowded with TV, press, public and a total of 13 bidders. Bidding on the first ship started a little slowly but it was not long before it became a two-horse race. Finally the first ship was knocked down but as I brought down the hammer a bidder came in. However the bid was fractionally too late and whilst the bidder protested, there was nothing to be done. Luckily the following two ships were auctioned without further problems.

Post auction activity was rather hectic since three contracts had to be signed immediately with the buyer then rushing off to arrange for the transfer of the full purchase price within the prescribed seven days – no easy feat. At the same time the TV and press people were trying to obtain immediate quotes and to make a story basically out of nothing.

It was interesting to see how the media handled the story. Only in Australia would a journalist compare the purchase price to the equivalent in tubes of Fosters (12,432,000 for those collectors of meaningless statistics). This same journalist christened some of the bidders ‘Zorba the Greek’, ‘The Man from Uncle’, ‘Omar Shariff’s Younger Brother’ and ‘James Bond’, and really he was not far out.

When the excitement of the auction died down, I was able to reflect that August 1988 was probably one of the highlights of a relatively long career in sale and purchase. Equally I felt a certain pride that a London broker should have been chosen to conduct an unusual sale in an unusual place. Perhaps this confirms my belief that London can compete very effectively with other centres and continues to be the major force in shipbroking.

As has been the case in Tasmania, the Sheriff of the Northern Territory has also in recent times been required to go into the street and obtain jurors through the practice of “praying a tales” (see chapter on Tasmania for details of this practice). As recently as 7 February, 1992, she exercised this authority as the following article from the ‘Northern Territory News’ explains:-


By Bob Watt

Three blameless Darwin people were “roped in” by the sheriff last Friday and told they would be deprived of their liberty for a while.

But it was not a scene from the Wild West as the Sheriff of the Supreme Court, diminutive Ms Karen Jackson, and her rather larger sheriff’s officer, Mr Steve Durant, approached people in the Smith St Mall.

Armed only with the considerable powers of her office, Ms Jackson was sent out by Chief Justice Austin Asche to find three jurors in a hurry.

The reason was that the panel of 50 people from which a jury was to be selected was “exhausted” after 11 jurors were chosen.

Justice Asche had previously excused a number of people who, for various reasons, had asked to be forgiven jury service.

Then the three defence counsel between them challenged 38 of the panel and the crown prosecutor stood one aside.

So after the 11 jurors were empanelled there were no more names in the ballot box.

The number of challenges was unusual because 11 people had been arraigned on the same charge and each defendant in a trial has six challenges.

Defence counsel could have challenged up to 66 and a crown prosecutor could stand aside up to six.

The N.T. Juries Act provides for one or more reserve jurors, who sit on the whole trial but take part in final deliberation only as a replacement for a juror who becomes ill or injured.

As this trial was set down for six days, the judge would have most likely ordered 14 jurors empanelled.

So Justice Asche told the court he was taking, reluctantly, the once common course of picking jurors off the street known in legal pariance as “praying at tales”.

Section 37 (2) of the Act allows the court, at the request of the prosecutor or the defence, to “order the sheriff to appoint persons in the vicinity of the court”.

Leading Darwin jurists believe this is the first instance in Australia for about 50 years that a court had called in “talesmen”.

One found a record of this happening in England in 1958.

So Ms Jackson, smartly dressed but without badge or uniform, and Mr Durant, dressed in the court uniform of black tie and white shirt with crowns on the collar, sailed forth from the new Supreme Court.

In Raintree Park next to the present Legislative Assembly they approached a couple but they turned out to be visitors to Darwin.

Ms Jackson said: “We found our three jurors in the Mall after stopping a number of people to make sure they were eligible.”

The criteria was being a resident, over 18 years and on the electoral roll, having no criminal record and being fluent in English.

Ms Jackson said: “People are certainly surprised to be told they are to be deprived of their liberty for no reason other than to serve on a jury.

“People generally do not understand what the powers of the sheriff are, what the Juries Act provides or what a talesman is.”

But the three (a young tradesman, a young woman from a government department and a businessman on his way to the bank) accepted Ms Jackson’s authority and went to the court.

But once there, they too, were challenged.

Justice Asche told the court he had no alternative but to discharge the jury panel for the trial of the nine men and two juveniles from Peppimenarti, jointly accused of a dangerous act causing the death of a 23-year-old man.

The trial has been adjourned to July 20.

Ms Jackson said she summoned 150 people for the jury panel but only 73 turned up.

She said: “In July I will have to summons 170 to 180 people to make sure I get 80 people on the day.

“The problem is that Darwin is a transitory town and summonses are now sent by mail.

“People leave or change address and some forget to send back the acknowledgement. So I really don’t know how many will turn up.”

The Northern Territory has an area of 1,346,000 square kilometres with a population (June, 1990) of 157,000. (Australia: 7,682,000 square kilometres – population 17,085,000) – Australian Bureau of Statistics 1991.


Copyright © Bailiff/ 2000 - All rights reserved Design By DK ‹› Contact The Webmaster