Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Taking time off for dependants

Belfast City Hospital

Having recently availed of the right to time off for dependants (my four-year-old daughter having fallen and cut her chin which resulted in a trip to A&E!) I thought I might cover the issue of this right to time off work in this week’s column.

Employees have a right to take reasonable time off work to deal with unexpected problems involving dependants.

The time off is unpaid but an employee may have additional rights to payment for this time off which will be detailed in their contract of employment.

An employee does not have to have worked for their employer for a certain length of time to qualify for this right.

For the purposes of the right to time off work, a dependant is a child, spouse or parent, someone (other than the person’s employee, lodger, tenant or boarder) who lives in the same household or anyone who reasonably relies on the employee, for example, an elderly neighbour.

Examples of when time off may be taken are:

  • To provide assistance or to make arrangements for the provision of care when a dependant falls ill, gives birth or is injured
  • Where a dependant has died or been assaulted. In the case of a dependant's death, time off under this provision may be taken to deal with the practical consequences of the death, for example, making funeral arrangements and attending the funeral, registering the death and applying for probate, but the provision is not intended to allow an employee to take compassionate leave because of distress resulting from their bereavement
  • Where arrangements for caring for a dependant unexpectedly break down
  • To deal with an incident that involves a child of the employee and that occurs unexpectedly while the child is at school.

The employee should tell their employer the reason for the time off as soon as reasonably practicable and give the employer an idea of when they expect to be able to return to work.

Reasonable time off for dependants would usually be a day or two, but could be longer, depending on the circumstances.

An Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) in Britain has held that time off is to be permitted to enable an employee to make longer term arrangements for caring for a dependant, not to allow for the employee to care for the dependant themselves.

It said that, although all cases will depend on their specific facts, a period as long as a month would rarely, if ever, fall within the scope of the regulations governing time off for dependants.

The GB Employment Appeal Tribunal decided that the key elements of the right are that the time off is necessary to deal with an unexpected disruption of arrangements to care. In this case, the employee’s child minder told her she could not cover a particular day.

The employee told her employer of this two weeks in advance of that day and asked for that day off.

Her employer refused, and when the employee took the day off she was disciplined. An employment tribunal decided the employee was entitled to the day off and had therefore suffered a detriment for exercising that right.

The employer argued that the right to time off only applies in a sudden and unexpected emergency.

The EAT ruled that to say the right only arose where the employee had no warning was too narrow an interpretation of the law.

A tribunal would take into account the amount of time between the employee becoming aware of the risk of disruption and it happening, and what alternative arrangements had been explored, when deciding whether the time off was necessary and should therefore be given. The employer lost the appeal.

  • Further information on your rights to time off work is available from your local CAB or from the Department for Employment and Learning who have produced guidance on this subject available from www.delni.gov.uk.

Siobhan Harding is an information & policy officer with Citizens Advice

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