The Working Time Regulations (WTR) 1998 state that if a worker is not able to take the 20-minute rest break to which they are entitled after working six hours, they should be allowed an “equivalent period of compensatory rest”. In Crawford v Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd, the Court of Appeal held that a compensatory rest break has to have the same “value” as the 20-minute break, but does not have to be continuous.

Thompsons was instructed by the RMT to act on behalf of their member. 

Basic facts

Mr Crawford worked as a relief cover signalman at various signal boxes in the south east of England which were nearly all single-staffed. In its policy on rest breaks, Network Rail stated that employees at single-staffed locations had to take breaks as they occurred “naturally” with the result that the 20-minute break to which he was entitled might end up being an aggregate of shorter breaks over the course of a shift. In that event, at least one of the “naturally occurring breaks” had to be at least five minutes long.

Mr Crawford claimed that he was entitled to a continuous 20-minute rest break under regulation 12 of the WTR or “compensatory rest” under regulation 24(a).

Relevant law 

Regulation 12 provides for a rest break of not less than 20 minutes if a worker's daily working time is more than six hours, with the exception of workers in the “railway transport” industry who undertake activities that are “intermittent” or are involved in “ensuring the continuity and regularity of traffic” They are entitled instead under regulation 24(a) to an equivalent period of compensatory rest.

Tribunal and EAT decisions 

The tribunal found that regulation 12 did not apply to Mr Crawford and that the arrangements made by Network Rail in its policy document satisfied the requirements of regulation 24(a). Mr Crawford appealed on the basis that "an equivalent period of compensatory rest" must comprise one period lasting at least 20 minutes. 

Overturning the tribunal’s decision, the EAT (weekly LELR 561) held that, as there were some shifts when Mr Crawford could not take a continuous break of 20 minutes and given that it was possible for Network Rail to solve the problem by providing a relief signaller, regulation 24(a) was not satisfied during those shifts.

Decision by Court of Appeal 

The Court of Appeal, however, disagreed with the EAT. Given that employers of railway workers were not required to provide them with rest breaks satisfying the provisions of regulation 12, it said that the description of the compensatory rest required under regulation 24 (a) as "equivalent" could not mean the identical obligation. On the contrary, it must just mean that the rest afforded to the worker should have the same “value” in terms of contributing to their well-being.

The question as to whether it was equivalent was a matter for the tribunal to decide. However, there was no basis in principle for the proposition that only an uninterrupted break of 20 minutes could offer an equivalent benefit. Indeed, the Court could not see why a single uninterrupted break of 20 minutes would always be better than, say, two uninterrupted breaks of 15 minutes one-third and two-thirds through the shift. 

Although the decision in Hughes v The Corps of Commissionaires Management Ltd (weekly LELR 241) held that if an on-call worker’s break was interrupted they were allowed to start it over again, that did not mean that the break had to be continuous.