The Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland has ruled (Martin v Southern Health and Social Care Trust) that a nurse was not ‘on call’, for the purposes of the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR), during unpaid rest breaks that were at risk of being interrupted due to the nature of the work.
Claire Martin, a State Registered Nurse, claimed that her rest breaks were often interrupted. She requested that cover be provided to ensure this didn’t happen, but the Craigavon Area Hospital where she worked was often busy and such cover could not be guaranteed. She therefore claimed payment for the breaks on the ground that they constituted working time. Having failed to resolve the matter by means of the internal grievance procedure, she initiated proceedings before the Employment Tribunal (ET).
The ET held that the rest breaks did constitute working time. However, both the Working Time Directive and the WTR allow for the fact that it may not always be possible to guarantee uninterrupted rest breaks, particularly for workers providing hospital treatment or care. On the facts of the case, the Hospital had in place a collective agreement, negotiated nationally with the trade unions most affected, to ensure that any unused entitlement to rest breaks could be claimed as a period of equivalent compensatory rest. To this end, it maintained a book called the ‘Time Owing Book’, for recording interruptions to rest breaks and Ms Martin herself accepted that she had been fully compensated by time in lieu for ‘every minute’ recorded as time owing. The rest breaks did not, therefore, qualify for payment.
On appeal, the Court of Appeal upheld the ET’s decision that the rest breaks should be unpaid as the Hospital had complied with the WTR by having an appropriate compensatory rest system in place.
However, the Court disagreed that the unpaid rest breaks constituted working time. The arrangements in place at the Hospital were intended to ensure, in the interests of health and safety, that employees could enjoy uninterrupted breaks, except in exceptional circumstances where the demand for continuity of service provision made it impossible. In the Court’s view, the provision of such breaks is quite different from ‘on-call’ time and to equate them as such would effectively destroy their basic purpose.
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