All employees are entitled to take unpaid time off to deal with an emergency situation involving a dependant.

We outline below when the statutory right to time off for dependants applies and the claims your business may be exposed to if you fail to support an employee’s right to take this form of leave.

Statutory right to unpaid time off for dependants

All employees have the statutory right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid leave to handle an emergency concerning their dependants. 

The right does not extend to workers or self-employed contractors.

There is no length of service requirement, so all employees have a right to unpaid time off for dependants from day one, irrespective of whether they work full-time or part-time, or whether they are employed on a permanent or fixed-term basis.

Who is a ‘dependant’?

Those who are defined as a ‘dependant’ of an employee in this context are clearly set out in the legislation, and include a:

  • Spouse or civil partner
  • Child
  • Parent
  • Person who lives in the same household as the employee (except tenants, lodgers or employees)
  • Person who reasonably relies on the employee for assistance if they fall ill, are injured or assaulted
  • Person who reasonably relies on the employee to make arrangements for the provision of care in the event of illness or injury

No other categories of person are considered to be a dependant for the purposes of the statutory right to time off.

When does the right to time off apply?

‘Necessary’ action

An employee is entitled to take time off so they can take ‘necessary’ action to deal with an unexpected incident concerning their dependant.

What action is necessary will of course depend upon the individual circumstances of the case.

For example, the type of incident, the employee’s relationship to the dependant and the availability of anyone else to deal with the situation should be considered.

The right to time off for dependants applies only to a specified list of emergency situations which are outlined below.

Providing assistance when a dependant falls ill, gives birth or is injured or assaulted

An employee can take time off work to tend to and seek urgent medical attention for a dependant who is unexpectedly ill or involved in an accident.

Illness and injury in this context include both physical and mental conditions and there is no requirement for the illness or injury to be serious or life-threatening.

If the employee is a parent of a pregnant woman or the expectant father, they can take time off to take the woman to hospital to give birth.

Making arrangements for the provision of care for a dependant who is ill or injured

An employee can take time off to arrange care for a dependant who unexpectedly falls ill or is injured.

The right to time off is limited to making arrangements for care, the employee cannot take time off to personally care for the dependant until they get better.

Dealing with the death of a dependant 

An employee can take time off to deal with the practical arrangements resulting from the death of a dependant, for example organising and attending the funeral.

However, they will not be able to use this time off for bereavement.

An unexpected disruption or termination of care arrangements for a dependant

An employee can take time off to put in place long-term care for a dependant whose care arrangements fall through.

The employee can provide interim care for the dependant whilst they find an alternative, but they cannot provide long-term care themselves under this type of leave.

Dealing with an unexpected incident involving the employee’s child during school time

An employee can take time off to attend the child’s school if their child has been involved in a fight or accident.

When time off for dependants does not apply 

Time off for dependants is designed to allow employees to deal with unexpected incidents so this type of leave cannot be used for planned medical appointments.

As the statutory right to time off for dependants applies only to those specific situations listed above, it cannot be used to deal with the illness or injury of a pet or personal crisis, such as relationship breakdown.

If an employee is not entitled to take time off for dependants in the circumstances, you could suggest alternatives, such as taking annual leave.

How much time off can an employee take?

The legislation does not impose a limit on the length of time off that can be taken as dependant leave; it states that employees should be granted ‘a reasonable amount of time off’.

Therefore, employers should not state a maximum length of leave that can be taken in any context.

The appropriate amount of time off will differ according to the employee’s particular circumstances as some situations will require more time to redress than others.

However, in most cases a few hours or one to two days at most would be reasonable time off to deal with the emergency.

It is important to note here that business needs have no impact upon whether dependant leave is necessary or what length of leave is reasonable.

An employee’s work commitments should never prevent them from taking time off for dependants.  

Furthermore, the legislation places no limits on the frequency of absences as time off for dependants.

Therefore, an employee is entitled to take time off on multiple occasions throughout the year if this is necessary and each absence should be considered independently regarding its specific circumstances.

Obligations on the employee

Notice

The right to take time off for dependants is conditional upon the employee informing their employer of:

  • the reason for their absence as soon as reasonably practicable.
  • how long they expect to be absent.

If it is not reasonably practicable for the employee to inform the employer of their reason for absence before they return to work, they should do so promptly upon their return.

The legislation does not set out any formalities regarding the employee’s notice therefore a phone call to their manager on the first day of absence would be sufficient.

The employee does not need to disclose any details of their situation other than the general purpose of their absence.

Evidence

There is no legal requirement for employees to provide any evidence to prove the validity of their time off for dependants.

Therefore, employers must act cautiously when requesting evidence.

Evidence should only be requested as part of an investigation when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the employee is abusing the right and the company’s disciplinary procedure should be followed.

Potential Tribunal claims

If you prevent an employee from taking time off for dependants in line with their statutory right or you subject them to a detriment for exercising their right, they can bring a claim in the employment tribunal.

An employee can also bring a claim of unfair dismissal if you dismiss them because they exercised or tried to exercise their right to time off for dependants.

As this is an example of automatic unfair dismissal, there is no length of service requirement so any employee could bring this type of unfair dismissal claim.

Time limit

An employee must bring their claim within three months of the date on which they were refused time off, subjected to a detriment or dismissed.

Remedies

If the tribunal finds that you denied an employee their right to time off for dependants or that you subjected them to a detriment for exercising their right, they will make a declaration to this effect.

The tribunal may also award the employee with compensation, considering your default and any loss they have suffered.

If an employee’s unfair dismissal claim succeeds, the tribunal can order you to re-engage or re-instate the employee and they will award compensation in line with the unfair dismissal rules.

time off for dependants Policy

We highly recommend that you include a policy on time off for dependants in the employee handbook so that employees are aware of their right and how it operates.

The policy should:

  • Clearly outline the circumstances in which time off for dependants applies (e.g. who counts as a dependant, when leave can be taken, notice requirements).
  • Explain that abuse of the right or breach of the policy may be dealt with under the disciplinary procedure and in this situation evidence may be requested.
  • Set out any enhancements of the statutory right that your business offers (e.g. if you extend the definition of dependant, if you allow time off for a wider selection of emergencies or if you offer any paid leave) and any additional requirements.

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About the author 

James Rowland

James is the Commercial Director at Neathouse Partners and regularly writes articles surrounding issues in HR & Employment Law. Outside of the office, James is a keen Cricketer, playing in the Cheshire League for Nantwich CC. He also loves going to watch his football team, Crewe Alexandra. Feel free to connect with James on LinkedIn.

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