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Time off for dependants (compassionate leave)

In many cases you have the right to take time off work to deal with an emergency involving someone who depends on you (sometimes called compassionate leave). You can’t be penalised by your employer for taking the time off, providing your reasons for taking it are genuine.

Your right to time off for dependants

If you are an 'employee', you have the right to unpaid time off work to deal with emergencies involving a 'dependant' – this could be your husband, wife, partner, child, parent, or anyone living in your household as a member of the family. A dependant may also be anyone who reasonably relies on you for help in an emergency, for example an elderly neighbour living alone who falls and breaks a leg and you are the closest on hand.

You should check your contract, written statement of employment or company handbook for details of the policy on time off for dependants and compassionate leave.

What counts as an emergency?

An emergency could be any unexpected or sudden problem involving someone who depends on your help or care. The right to time off for dependants could apply to a wide range of different circumstances but below are examples of some of the more common situations where you could be entitled to take time off:

If a dependant falls ill

In this situation the illness or injury doesn’t necessarily have to be serious or life-threatening, and may be mental or physical. The illness or injury could be a result of a deterioration of an existing condition for example, a dependant may be suffering from a nervous breakdown and may not need full-time care, but there could be occasions when their condition deteriorates and you need to take unexpected time off work. You could also take time off work to make longer term care arrangements for the dependant.

If a dependant has been injured or assaulted

The right to take time would also be available if a dependant is a victim of a mugging or similar incident, but has not been physically hurt but you need to take time off work to comfort or help the victim. You could also take time off work to make longer term care arrangements for the dependant.

When a dependant is having a baby

This does not include taking time off after the birth to care for the child as you could be entitled to paternity or parental leave for this purpose.

To deal with an unexpected disruption or breakdown of care arrangements for a dependant

For example, if a childminder or nurse fails to turn up as arranged, or the nursery or nursing home has to close unexpectedly.

To deal with an unexpected incident involving your child during school hours

For example, if your child has been involved in a fight, is distressed, has been injured on a school trip or is being suspended from school.

To deal with the death of a dependant

When a dependant dies, you can take time off to make funeral arrangements, as well as to attend a funeral. If the funeral is overseas then you will need to agree a reasonable length of absence with your employer.

Taking time off for a dependant

Letting your employer know about taking time off

You can take time off regardless of your length of service. If you do need time off you should let your employer know as soon as you can, although you don't have to do it in writing or provide evidence.

If you return to work before you’ve had the chance to contact your employer, you must still tell them why you were absent.

How much time you're allowed to take off

You are allowed 'reasonable' time off to deal with the emergency and make any arrangements that are needed. There's no set amount of time allowed to deal with an unexpected event involving a dependant - it will vary depending on what the event is but for most cases one or two days should be sufficient to deal with the problem. For example, if your child falls ill you can take enough time off to deal with their initial needs, such as taking them to the doctor and arranging for their care. However, you’ll need to make other arrangements if you want to stay off work longer to care for them yourself.

If both parents wish to take time off for a dependant you should try to adopt a common-sense approach with your employer. Both parents may need to take time off if your child has had a serious accident, however it is unlikely to be necessary for both parents to be absent for work if the childminder fails to turn up.

There's no limit to the number of times you can take time off for dependants, provided it's for real emergencies. If your employer feels that you are taking more time off than they can cope with, they should warn you of this.

If you'll need to be off for longer than you thought to deal with something, contact your employer as soon as you can to let them know why and how long you might need. Try to give them these details in writing as soon as you can. Your employer may have a form they'll need you to fill in.

Being paid for your time off

Your employer doesn't have to pay you for time off for dependants but they may choose to do so. You can check your contract of employment to see if there's a policy about this.

Keeping disruption to a minimum

Try to cause as little disruption to your employer as possible. For example, if your mother's day carer has unexpectedly quit, try to get other family members to look after her instead of you while you look for a replacement.

When the right doesn't apply

Problems not involving a dependant

You don't have the right to time off for every problem. A burst boiler at home or problems with your dog don't count as neither involves a dependant.

Time off to care for people who don't count as a dependant (accompanying a friend to hospital for example) aren't covered. Your employer can still choose to allow you time off if they wish (or you might take some of your paid holiday). If it happens regularly, it may be more useful to consider using a flexible working arrangement.

When you know about the problem in advance

The right only covers emergencies and so doesn't apply if you know about the event in advance. For example, if you want time off to take your child into hospital in a week's time the right doesn't apply, although you may be able to take it as parental leave instead.

Compassionate leave

If you need time off to cope with a situation that doesn't fall under the 'time off for dependants' right, you may have a right to time off under your contract of employment. Many employers will have a scheme for compassionate leave and details should be included in your contract or company handbook. If the situation is not covered by any scheme then you can still ask your employer for the time off, although they do not have to agree to your request.

What to do if you have problems

It's unfair to refuse you reasonable time off to deal with an unexpected event involving a dependant. It's also unfair to dismiss or penalise you (eg not giving you promotion or training or the use of facilities you'd normally be offered).

If you're dismissed, made redundant or penalised because of the right, or if you're refused reasonable time off, you can complain to an Employment Tribunal. If your complaint is successful they may make an order for you to receive compensation, be re-employed or re-instated.

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