Unless the particular circumstances make it impossible, the right to time off in such cases is subject to the employee telling the employer the reason for the absence, as soon as is reasonably practicable, and for how long he or she expects to be absent. The law makes no provision as to how much time is ‘reasonable’ although guidance on the website of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) notes that this will vary according to the circumstances of the emergency but ‘for most cases, one or two days should be sufficient to deal with the problem’.
In a recent unfair dismissal case (Cortest Ltd. v O’Toole) the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) gave guidance on this issue. Mr O’Toole worked for Cortest Ltd. as a street lighting engineer. His partner was struggling to cope with their domestic situation and when things reached crisis point, he requested a month or so off work to look after the couple’s three children in order to give his partner the rest she needed. Her mother worked full-time and so was unable to step in to help.
The Employment Tribunal (ET) found that the amount of time off work requested was reasonable under Section 57A, albeit at the top end of what might be permitted. On appeal, the EAT ruled that the ET was in error. The purpose of the legislation is to cover emergencies and to enable alternative care arrangements to be put in place. In this case, there was no evidence that alternative child care arrangements were sought – for example enlisting the help of a friend or relative. Section 57A does not permit a parent to take time off to become a child minder for a period of time but was created for emergency situations and to provide a ‘short breathing space’.