Employees are entitled to a reasonable period of time off to care for dependants provided they inform their employers as soon as reasonably practicable. Employers and employees will naturally interpret what is reasonable in any given situation differently, as suits their cause, so it is useful to have some guidance from the Employment Appeal Tribunal on what is reasonably practicable in this context.

In Ellis v Ratcliff Palfinger Ltd, the employee in question had recently received two warnings, including a final written warning for timekeeping issues. He was told clearly that further misconduct would result in dismissal. A couple of months after receiving this warning his partner went into labour and he attended hospital with her. He did not attend work that day or the following day. He did not contact his work until after he received a text message from a colleague asking him to do so. He called his work and left a message on their answerphone in the afternoon.

On his return, he was invited to a disciplinary meeting. He was dismissed for failing to make reasonable efforts to inform his employer that he would not be attending work in accordance with their absence procedures and bearing in mind his final written warning. Mr Ellis’ complaint to the Employment Tribunal was that he had been automatically unfairly dismissed for taking time off to care for a dependant.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal rejected his complaint. It was unimpressed at the excuse he gave for not contacting his employer (which was that his mobile telephone had run out of battery). It held that he had not contacted his employer 'as soon as reasonably practicable' to tell them that he would be absent. Therefore he could not claim to have been automatically unfairly dismissed. It was satisfied that he was properly dismissed for misconduct.

It is reassuring for employers to know that, whatever domestic crisis an employee is dealing with, the obligation to contact the employer will be rigorously enforced – so long as that’s reasonable!