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Court of Appeal rules on rest breaks

  • United Kingdom
  • Employment law - HR E-Brief


The Court of Appeal has today ruled that where a worker is entitled, under the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR), to ‘compensatory rest’ instead of a 20 minute uninterrupted rest break, the rest need not, in every case, consist of an uninterrupted 20 minutes, even if it would, in principle, be possible to provide such a break. What matters is that the rest afforded to the worker has the same value in terms of contributing to his or her well-being.

The WTR give most workers who work longer than six hours the right to an uninterrupted 20 minute rest break. For some kinds of work listed in the regulations, however, an employer need not give workers rest breaks satisfying those requirements but instead must, if possible, afford workers an “equivalent period of compensatory rest”.

The case before the Court of Appeal involved a worker whose work meant he was excluded from the right to an uninterrupted 20 minute rest break: Mr Crawford worked for Network Rail as a relief signaller and, as such, came within the exclusion as a worker in railway transport whose activities were intermittent. This meant he was entitled to compensatory rest. During some shifts, Mr Crawford was required to work alone in a signal box. When a train came through, which could be six times an hour, he had to perform certain tasks that took no more than a minute or two. In between those episodes the claimant had to be ready to take immediate action if notified of an issue affecting the stretch of track for which he was responsible but was otherwise free to leave his workstation (though not the signal box). During such periods, Mr Crawford was comfortably able to take multiple rest breaks of at least 5 minutes each in duration and which cumulatively, though not individually, amounted to at least 20 minutes.

Mr Crawford complained that his employer had breached the statutory rules on rest breaks, arguing – among other things – that the company could and should have made an additional relief signaller available so that he could take an uninterrupted 20 minute break during each shift. An Employment Tribunal rejected that claim, noting that the evidence relied on by the company suggested that several shorter breaks, aggregated across the working day, would be more beneficial than a single, longer break at a certain point in the shift. That decision has today been upheld by the Court of Appeal, which ruled that compensatory rest need not in every case comprise an uninterrupted 20 minutes, even if such a break would be possible to arrange. The key question is whether the rest afforded to the worker has the same value in terms of contributing to his or her well-being; on the facts of this case, the answer was that it did.

Link to judgment: Crawford v Network Rail Infrastructure Limited