In the case of Martin v Southern Health & Social Care Trust, the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal (NICA) ruled that, although a nurse's rest breaks during night shift were often interrupted due to medical emergencies or other more mundane administrative matters, this did not mean that those rest breaks amounted to "on-call time" for which she was entitled to be paid.

Under the Working Time (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1998 (which broadly mirror the Working Time Regulations 1998) workers who work more than six hours in a working day are entitled to a rest break for an uninterrupted period of not less than twenty minutes. This requirement is disapplied in certain special circumstances, including where the worker's activities require continued service including services relating to the reception, treatment or care provided by hospitals. Workers whose rest breaks are interrupted in these circumstances should be permitted to take "compensatory rest".

Ms Martin was a nurse working at the Trust and her shift pattern required her to work a night shift during which she was entitled to two unpaid rest breaks, which she took within the hospital premises. Ms Martin's rest breaks were often interrupted to deal will a range of incidents, from significant medical emergencies to mundane practical and administrative matters. The Trust ensured that interruptions were logged and that she received compensatory time off.

When her request for cover to be guaranteed so that she could take uninterrupted breaks during specific shifts was refused, Ms Martin claimed that she should be paid for all of her rest breaks because there could be no guarantee that she would not be disturbed. She argued that the breaks amounted to "on-call time" and were therefore working time.

The NICA held that the risk of interruption of rest breaks did not mean that they could be equated to "on-call time". The requirement for healthcare staff to provide continuous service in exceptional circumstances was conceptually different to "on-call time", during which the employee remains at the disposal of the employer. It also held that she was not entitled to be paid for the rest breaks because compensatory rest was provided and these arrangements has been collectively agreed at a national level to make sure the Regulations were implemented correctly.

Impact on employers

  • Although this decision of the NICA is not binding on employment tribunals in Scotland, England and Wales, it will still be relevant if similar issues arise under the Working Time Regulations 1998.
  • There is a distinction to be made between rest breaks during the working day and rest periods between working days. The Directive and Regulations permit some flexibility in relation to the entitlement to short, twenty-minute rest breaks, which often cannot be taken away from the workplace.
  • The key factor in this case was that the arrangements put in place by the Trust for ensuring compensatory rest satisfied the terms of the Directive, the Regulations and the Trust's own terms and conditions of employment. The case highlights, in similar circumstances, the importance of logging interruptions to rest breaks and ensuring that employees receive compensatory time off in lieu of any interruptions.