The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has held, in Royal Bank of Scotland plc v Harrison, that an employee's entitlement to take time off for dependants under section 57A of the Employment Rights Act 1996 because of an unexpected disruption or termination of care arrangements for a dependant is not limited to last minute unavailability or emergencies.

The facts are interesting: Mrs Harrison had been given 2 weeks' notice by her child minder that she would be unable to look after her children on a certain day. Mrs Harrison tried but was unable to find alternative care arrangements for that day and therefore asked for a day off under section 57A. RBS refused her request and disciplined her for unauthorised absence when she took the day off. RBS contended that time off under section 57A was only to cover a "sudden and unexpected emergency". The Employment Tribunal and the EAT disagreed, the EAT holding that:

  • the word "unexpected" does not involve a time element and that there was no requirement to imply the words "sudden" or "emergency" to section 57A; and
  • a tribunal will take time into account in determining whether time off under the section is "necessary". The longer the period of time between the employee's learning of the disruption and the disruption occurring, the less likely it is the tribunal will find it was necessary for the employee to take the time off.

Impact on employers

This case highlights the problems that can occur in interpreting employees' rights under the legislation. Employers should review their policies on time off for dependants under section 57A to ensure that they do not unduly restrict this right and should take care when applying their policies to consider the individual employee's circumstances and the efforts they have made to make alternative arrangements.