“Sir, can I go to the loo please?”: A Legal Minefield
“But it’s a human right!”, they say “It’s my legal right!”, “It’s a humanitarian need!”, “I’ll fail my Latin vocab test!”; but is it protected under the law? In this article I look into the legal aspects of going to the toilet during lessons, what UK law has to say about it, and what the law should have to say about it.
“Can I go to the toilet please?”; a request for relief either from internal, physical pressure, or from the mental tedium of a double lesson. For centuries teachers and students have been locked in cubicalised combat and the searing heat with which this debate is argued, due to a student’s desperation, can detract from whether sitting on that agape plastic seat is a right or not. If ventures to the loo were used as a toilet break then there may not be such desire to prevent them, however the convenient timing just before the homework is set, along with the increased journeying time due to becoming severely lost and ending up meandering through the deep labyrinth that is the copse causes suspicion. And this brings us into another element, morals, if we do not show responsibility, should we not have the corresponding rights?
As far as the law is concerned, there is little to prevent teachers from saying “no” on the face of it. The best way to get an idea of the legal stance on toilet breaks in schools is to look into its position on the same scenario in the workplace; simply replace the head with your employer and treat yourself as an employee; someone who is there to work and is compliant to the rules and instructions of their boss.
Under the Health And Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a duty to ‘Provide suitable and sufficient sanitary conveniences and washing facilities at readily accessible places’. Although it is not explicitly stated, it could be that ‘readily accessible’ could be your route to securing a mid-essay loo break. You can argue that readily accessible means that the toilet must be accessible geographically yet also temporarily, hence ‘readily’. Therefore, in the same way that a fallen tree may qualify as a barrier preventing accessibility; could a teacher not qualify as similar?
Some may say no, the teacher only bars the toilet temporarily, but if the toilet must be ‘readily accessible’, surely this means ‘at any time’.
Another angle of attack is to play the health and safety card (possibly a harder act to pull off). Under the same parliamentary act of 1974, employers also have the duty to ‘ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees’. Some people do suffer from digestive and urinary tract problems from enforcing too harsher discipline on their bladder. Therefore the disallowing of someone going to the toilet when they have a genuine need could, in extreme circumstances, be a breach of this act. Of course there are also forms of medication and other conditions (which I’d rather not go into) which mean that people have a more frequent need for sanitary facilities. If you can act well enough to show you are carrying any of these conditions, you may well be able to go and ask Google to help you out in your next physics test.
Now let’s take a step back, we are in a school, not a workplace, a place with rebels so inventive and conniving that David Bowie felt the need to mention them 18 times in a song which can only go down as an all-time-hit. So, obviously, in a school, a greater measure of control is needed. However, schools do still have similar duties of care to students as employers do employees, so perhaps comparing teacher and student to employer and employees is not so audacious and the employment law is quite reflective of what we should have in place in schools.
The fact still remains though that the law will only really back you if you can claim your health could be threatened by tyrannical control of your bladder. If you simply want the personal freedom of complying whenever nature calls, you will, I’m afraid, as far as my research informs me, have to go through an arduous process of demonstrating how your scenario is similar to that of an employee’s and how the same principles apply to your situation. By the time you have moaned at the teacher for this long you have either run out of the classroom in search of relief or the lesson is over anyway. So there is no direct law relating to student toilet breaks however there are evident principles of a freedom to go to the toilet whenever in statutory law and therefore you may have a case. The TUC are currently launching a call for complete freedom as to toilet breaks in the workplace, seeing this as a simple human right.
I hope to have given you an insight into how law can be relevant in day-to-day issues, and hopefully how it is open to interpretation. Of course, there are more elaborate cases in the world we can tune our legal minds to, rather than using them to look down a toilet. Many still believe however, that this is the route to stop the timeless, painful debate that starts like this – “It’s my right to go to the toilet.”