Meet the new sheriff in town
It didn't work out the way Dean Harris had been expecting it. For three years, she had been preparing herself for this day, when she would formally take up the role as High Sheriff of Shropshire.
She had written her declaration, which she had been planning to deliver to an audience of invited guests and dignitaries at Shrewsbury Justice Centre. Instead she became the county's first High Sheriff in 1,100 years to be inducted in her home by a video link.
"It was a little bit like I was organising a wedding and my groom had run off," she jokes.
"It is quite an important part of the year, it is where you make your declaration of your plans, so it was a bit strange.
"But we also made use of social media, so my declaration was seen by far more people than would normally see it."
The process of becoming High Sheriff is a slow one, and one of the first qualities a candidate is required to demonstrate is the ability to keep a secret. During their term of of office, an incumbent high sheriff is invited to nominate somebody to take on the role four years later, and Dean was nominated by her fellow magistrate Christine Holmes who held the post in 2016/17.
Mrs Harris was told of her nomination three years ago, but was bound by the strictest secrecy.
"I told my husband and my sister, but I could not tell anyone else until it was announced by the Royal Courts of Justice, a year ago in November."
Mrs Harris says her first reaction was one of surprise on being told about her nomination.
"I was surprised, some people's perceptions is it's a little bit like an old boys' network, and that it wouldn't happen to people like me," she says.
"I'm very much an ordinary person, I came from a very ordinary background on a council estate in south Wales."
She says that while it was a huge honour and privilege to be invited to take on the role, she also had to think long and hard about whether she was able to make the commitment.
"I wanted to make sure I could do the role justice, I wanted to make a difference," says Mrs Harris, who runs a management consultancy business with her husband Mark.
So what, precisely does the High Sheriff do? As has been the tradition since medieval times, the holder of the post is the Queen's representative for law and order in the county.
But the nature of the post has changed considerably over that time. In centuries gone by, the sheriff was an all-powerful – and often corrupt – figure, who would lay down the law and collect taxes on behalf of the monarch, as depicted by the Sheriff of Nottingham's in the tales of Robin Hood. In modern times, the role involves providing support to the justice system and emergency services, as well as working with charities which play a role in reducing crime.
Some high sheriffs begin their term by nominating charities they will be supporting throughout the year, but Mrs Harris instead chose to focus on three areas she has identified as being a priority from her 20 years as a JP.
"I will be prioritising domestic abuse, addiction, and child poverty, because those are the issues that have come up time and time again during my time on the bench," she says.
The 52-year-old, from Berrington, near Shrewsbury, adds: "Day to day, I sit in both the criminal court and the family court, and I see the impact of them, but the fact is some people are in denial and have these stereotypical ideas about addiction or domestic abuse.
"A lot of the cases we have will involve domestic abuse of some sort or another, but a lesson I have learned is that there will probably be 50 acts of abuse that will have happened before it gets to court, and the difficulty for people to leave their home in that situation.
"Addiction, whether it is alcohol or drugs, has a massive cost to society, never mind the impact on the individual. We need to focus on prevention, not cure."
Mrs Harris, who has also lived in Stourbridge, says that people often do not understand these problems.
"Some people have the idea that domestic abuse doesn't happen in middle-class environments, they think it is normally uneducated or unemployed people, but that is very much not the case," she says.
"Similarly, addiction is not just the preserve of people who are at rock bottom or the homeless, there are people who are managing to live with an addiction day to day."
Child poverty and deprivation is another problem that also seems to creep under the radar, she says, adding that it can have a major impact on youngsters in later life.
"A quarter of children across Shropshire are living in poverty," says Mrs Harris, adding that the figure rose to half for the children of single parents.
"I find it bad we have children growing up without enough to eat in Shropshire.
"When I talk about poverty, I'm talking about children sleeping on the floor, I'm talking about parents going without food so they can feed the children, or children going without food. It can mean being cold, because their parents can't afford the heating bills, it can mean not being able to get to medical appointments because they can't afford the bus fare.
"This can have a real impact on children's attainment at school, and if we can prevent this, it will mean they are less likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system in later life."
She says in many ways problems of poverty are more acute today than they were during her childhood.
"Where I grew up in a small mining village, it was very much working class, but there weren't any foodbanks, and I wasn't aware of anybody going hungry," she says.
"People have this perception of Shropshire as an idyllic and quite affluent county, but there's pockets that are in the top 10 per cent of the UK for deprivation."
Of course, much of the work Mrs Harris planned to do during her first couple of months in office has been disrupted by the coronavirus lockdown, and she has been forced to cancel meetings scheduled with a number of charities.
"It is disappointing, but nowhere near as difficult for me as it is for those who are losing their incomes," she says. "Hopefully, by the summer everything will be back to normal, and we can carry on."
And while Mrs Harris may only be just over two weeks into her role, the reality is that she has spent the past year laying the ground for her term of office. She has already formed links with a number of charities in the county, including West Mercia Women's Aid and Shropshire Domestic Abuse Service. She will be holding a ball in October to raise funds for her work.
*Mrs Harris says any organisations or charities that want to get in touch or become involved during her year of office can contact her on 07989 387343 or email email@example.com
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