Time off for Dependants

Last updated: 6 Jul 2021

If you are an employee, you have a statutory right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to take necessary action to deal with certain situations affecting your dependants. This is called ‘Time off for Dependants’ or ‘Emergency Family Leave’ and is aimed at dealing with emergencies.

This article covers the details of the statutory right to take Time off for Dependants. You should also check your employment contract or leave policy, as employers may give more generous emergency family leave than the statutory minimum.

What is Time off for Dependants?

Time off for Dependants gives employees the right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to take necessary action to deal with particular situations affecting their dependants. The right comes from the Employment Rights Act.

The law allows you to take time off in five types of situations. These are when it is necessary: 

  1. To provide assistance if your dependant falls ill, gives birth, is injured or assaulted
  2. To make arrangements to provide care for a dependant who is ill or injured
  3. As a result of the death of your dependent (for example, because you need to make funeral arrangements)
  4. To deal with the unexpected disruption, termination or breakdown in care of your dependent (for example, if your childminder fails to turn up)
  5. To deal with an unexpected incident which occurs with your child during school hours (for example, if your child is suspended from school)

If your situation does not fall into one of the above categories, then you will not have a legal right to take time off for dependents. You should explain your situation to your employer and request compassionate time off – check your contract, as some employers offer more generous leave policies.

Even if your situation is listed above, it is always a good idea to speak with your employer about the most appropriate type of leave for you. Your employer might offer another type of leave that is paid or that allows you to take a longer period off work than time off for dependents.

Who can take Time off for Dependants?

The statutory right to take time off for dependants applies to all employees – whether permanent, temporary, full time or part time. Workers and the self-employed do not have the right.

You are entitled to take time off for dependants from the first day of employment – there is no length of service requirement.

Who is a dependant?

A “dependant” is defined as a spouse, civil partner, child or parent (but not grandparent) of the employee, or a person who lives in the same household as the employee.

In addition, for the purposes of time off to provide assistance if a dependant falls ill, or to arrange for the provision of care for a dependant who is ill, the definition of “dependant” includes those who reasonably rely on the employee for such assistance or arrangements.

Others who rely on you for help in an emergency may also qualify. 

The legal right to take time off covers events to do with your dependants, so for example, you could not use the right to have time off to deal with a burst pipe. 

There is no right to be paid for taking time off for dependants. You can agree with your employer to make up lost time, but your employer should not require you to do so.

How much time off can I take?

The time off  needs to be necessary and reasonable in the circumstances. For example, if you are part of a couple or the other parent is active in the care of your child, the time off that is reasonable in the circumstances would take into account the fact that there is another person to share the care.

Normally only one parent would be expected to have the time off at once. However, where a child is very ill, has an accident or is having a major operation, it may be reasonable for both parents to have reasonable time off. 

To determine what is reasonable, think about the following: 

  • Is it the first time you’re asking for time off for dependants? If not, how often have you taken time off for dependants before and for how long? 
  • What was the incident? How severe was it? For how long have you known that it might happen? 
  • Is there anybody else that can help? 
  • Is there any other arrangement that is possible? 

Disruption or inconvenience caused to the employer’s business should not be taken into account when determining how much time off is reasonable to deal with the emergency or unexpected circumstance involving a dependant. 

And remember that your employer might have their own policy on taking time off which goes above and beyond the minimum required by law. It is always worth checking your employer’s policy on unpaid leave, parental leave, compassionate leave (in case of a bereavement) and emergency time off for dependants. 

How to request Time off for Dependants

You do not need to request Time off for Dependants, but you should notify your employer as soon as it is reasonably practical that you need time off and how long you think you’ll be absent. You should also notify your employer as soon as possible if the situation changes.

Try to find alternative arrangements (can grandparents can help? or a childminder?) and keep a record of when you have tried them and why they are not possible.

Keep a record of all the conversations (emails/letters) you have had with your employer on the subject, and if there are comments on your return, what these comments were.

Speak to your GP if you need additional time off for stress.

What if it is not an emergency?

If you knew about a situation beforehand, this would not normally be covered by time off for dependants. You could request unpaid parental leave instead.

However,  knowing in advance that something will happen does not mean that you definitely cannot take time off, so long as the time off is necessary. In the case of Royal Bank of Scotland plc v Harrison the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that a mother who had two weeks’ notice that her childminder would not be available, and who had tried but was unable to make alternative arrangements for her children, had taken time off for dependants when she was absent from work. 

If your dependant is ill for a long period, it may be better to take  paid or unpaid leave,  put in a request for  flexible working  or a  request for parental leave. 

Frequently asked questions

My employer dismissed or disciplined me for taking too much time off for dependants…

Your employer cannot penalise you for taking, or seeking to take, the time off. It is automatically unfair to dismiss you if the reason is that you took or sought to take time off, provided your reasons are genuine and it is reasonable.  Specifically, your employer cannot: 

  • Discipline you for seeking to take, or taking, time off for dependants. 
  • Refuse you training or promotion because you sought to take, or have taken, time off for dependants.  
  • Dismiss you or chose you for redundancy because you sought to take, or have taken, time off for dependants. 
  • Refuse you reasonable time off for dependants. 

There is no limit on how many times you can take time off for dependants, but your employer may want to talk to you if they think it is affecting your work. 

If you think you’ve been treated unfairly for taking time off for dependants or if you think that your employer has unreasonably refused to give you permission to take time off for dependants, you should always try to solve the matter informally with your employer first. If this fails, you can raise a grievance with your employer or make a claim in the Employment Tribunal. Note that strict time limits apply.  

What should I do if my employer disciplines me for taking Time off for Dependants?

You have the right to complain to the Employment Tribunal if:

  • you are subjected to a ‘detriment’ because you have taken, or sought to take, time off for dependents, or
  • your employer unreasonably refuses to allow you to take time off for dependents.

Examples of things that count as a detriment include being disciplined, not receiving a promotion, or being denied training opportunities because you took, or sought to take, time off for dependents.

If this happens to you, you should take the following steps:

  1. Raise the matter informally with your employer first by explaining your point of view and asking your employer to reconsider their decision.
  2. If that does not work, you might want to raise a grievance with your employer. This provides another more formal opportunity to resolve the issue. Remember to always have the time limits for bringing a claim at the back of your mind as you are going through the grievance process (see below for more information).
  3. If that does not work, you might want to seek legal advice about bringing an Employment Tribunal claim.  Strict time limits apply – you need to bring your claim within 3 months from the date that you were refused time off, or the date that you suffered a detriment because of taking or seeking to take the time off. The Tribunal can extend that period, but only in exceptional cases where it was not reasonably practicable to bring your claim in time. If you win your case, the Tribunal will make a declaration that your employer broke the law, and you might receive compensation.

What should I do if my employer dismisses me for taking Time off for Dependants?

If your employer dismissed you and the principal reason was because you took, or sought to take, time off for dependents, you would have an automatic unfair dismissal claim. Unlike some other unfair dismissal claims, you do not need to have been employed for a certain length of time to bring this type of claim.

If you are dismissed because you took time off for dependents, you should get legal advice straight away. There are strict time limits  if you want to bring a claim in the Employment Tribunal – you need to bring your claim within 3 months from the date you were dismissed, unless it is an exceptional case where it was not reasonably practicable to bring your claim in time.

If you win your unfair dismissal case, the Tribunal can order re-engagement (your employer has to re-employ you on new terms), reinstatement (your employer has to re-employ you on the same terms that you had before your dismissal), or compensation. Compensation is the most likely remedy.

Can I take time off for dependants to pick up up my niece/nephew from nursery because her parents were not able to?

For the purposes of time off to provide assistance if a dependant falls ill, or to arrange for the provision of care for a dependant who is ill, the definition of “dependant” includes those who reasonably rely on the employee for such assistance or arrangements.

In this case, the definition of dependant can include a niece or nephew if the purpose of the time off is to assist her nephew who has fallen ill or to arrange for his care, and the niece/nephew reasonably relies on you for assistance or arrangements.

I need to take time off to attend a meeting at my child’s school. Can I take time off for dependants?

The law is not clear. Normally time off for dependants is reserved for emergencies, or a breakdown in care arrangements, which is not the case here. However, you could still argue that attending a meeting to discuss your child’s special needs arrangements, which can be attended by no one other than yourself and  has been arranged at short notice, counts as time off for dependants. The law states that you can take the time off :  

  • To make arrangements for the provision of care for a dependant who is ‘ill’. Illness, for this purpose, specifically includes mental illness – so you could argue that it extends to all disabilities.
  • To deal with an incident which occurs unexpectedly while the child is at school – you could argue that the reason the school asks to see you is because of a previous unexpected incident. 
  • Because of the unexpected disruption or termination of arrangements for the care of a dependant: You could argue that without this meeting, there would be a disruption for the care of your child.  

However, if the meeting was not arranged at short notice, then you could consider using annual leave to attend the meeting or you may be entitled to take special leave under your contract of employment and it would be worth checking this with your employer. If your child is disabled then you could also consider making a parental leave request to attend the meeting (remember that parental leave can be taken in blocks of one day if your child is disabled).


This advice applies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If you live in another part of the UK, the law may differ. Please call our helpline for more details.

If you have further questions and would like to contact our advice team please use our advice contact form below or call us.

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The information on the law contained on this site is provided free of charge and does not, and is not intended to, amount to legal advice to any person on a specific case or matter. If you are not a solicitor, you are advised to obtain specific legal advice about your case or matter and not to rely solely on this information. Law and guidance is changing regularly in this area.