Unpaid Leave

Know your rights & laws on unpaid leave & entitlement in the UK. Unpaid leave is governed by the Employment Rights Act 1996 in the UK. Jury duty, public duties etc are unpaid leave by companies but paid by govt. Read on.
  • Author: Siva
  • Last updated: October 20, 2022
  • 5 Minutes
unpaid leave and its legal obligations for the employers and employees in the UK explained by Papershift

© / Adobe Stock

Sometimes outside work responsibilities can affect employees and their workplaces. A combination of children, sick pets, or elderly parents may require them to take time off work. And if paid time off isn’t available to them they’ll have to take unpaid time off work. 

But what exactly is unpaid leave and what does the law say about it in the UK? For answers to these questions and many more, read on.

What exactly is unpaid leave?

Unpaid leave is where an employee has no statutory right to paid leave but requires time away from work.

Legal leave entitlement
Normally, a business will provide staff with a set amount of annual leave. Legally this must be a minimum of 5.6 weeks a year (this is called statutory holiday entitlement}. 

There are, however, times when an employee will have to take time off work (often for emergency reasons) but have no leave entitlement remaining. 

What does the UK law say about unpaid leave?

Unpaid leave is governed by the Employment Rights Act 1996 in the UK. The right to unpaid leave is rather complicated and entitlement is not always a given depending on the circumstance. The Employment Rights Act 1996 does allow eligible employees to take a “reasonable” time off in certain situations (like parental leave) but these situations are often of the emergency variety.

Who can take unpaid leave?

Any employee within a business can request to take unpaid leave. If an employer offers unpaid leave, they must offer it fairly and not discriminate staff.

What are the reasons for taking unpaid leave?

Employees have an entitlement to unpaid leave if their request is “reasonable”. Here are a few examples of situations where unpaid leave may be offered.

Unpaid parental leave

Staff may take this to look after a child. Eligible employees can take unpaid parental leave to look after their child’s welfare, for example to:

  1. Spend more time with their children
  2. Look at new schools
  3. Settle children into new childcare arrangements
  4. Spend more time with family, such as visiting grandparents

Their employment rights (like the right to pay, holidays and returning to a job) are protected during parental leave. 

Unpaid leave for public duties

This may be for an individual to perform certain civic duties, such as:

  1. Perform magistrate duties
  2. Be a member of a local authority or council
  3. Sit on a board of prison governors
  4. Perform jury service. An employer refusing to give an employee time off for jury service can be fined. While an employer does not have to pay an employee for jury service, the employee will receive reimbursement from the government if they don’t receive pay.

Time off for dependants

This is time off to deal with emergency situations involving a dependant. UK law states specifically what a dependant is:

  1. An individual regarded as part of the family. This does not include tenants, boarders, lodgers, or employees.
  2. An individual who relies on an employee if there is an emergency.

Healthcare appointments for childbirth

Certain appointments relating to pregnancy and childbirth are a statutory right for staff. However, only mothers will receive pay and fathers or partners will have to take unpaid leave.

General healthcare appointments

Time off for doctor’s check-ups and dentist appointments aren’t statutory rights. Businesses can provide leave to help employees with these situations but there is no legal obligation. 

Compassionate leave

Compassionate leave is given in the event of a death in the family and is often unpaid (although many employees offer paid time off to their employees so they can grieve).

Can an employer force an employee to take unpaid leave? 

In short, no. An employer can refuse to pay for time off if the reason for taking leave isn’t protected by law, but they cannot force an employee to stay away from work without pay.

Paid annual leave can be enforced if, for example, the staff member has holiday entitlement left and require a day off for emergency reasons. 

Can an employer refuse a request for unpaid leave?

Yes, as stated above, there are situations in which the employer has the right to refuse an employee’s request to take unpaid leave.

These are:

  1. A career break or sabbatical.
  2. Appointments with the doctor or dentist (unless the employee is pregnant).
  3. Bereavement leave.
  4. Family emergency or to carry out public duties if the employer considers that the employee would be taking an unreasonable amount of time off.
  5. Study and training purposes where the employer does not consider that the training would benefit the business and/or where it would not be able to meet customer demands if the training were granted. 

Does annual leave accrue on unpaid leave?

Yes, employees on unpaid leave will continue to “accrue” statutory annual leave.

How many days unpaid leave it an employee entitled to?

The number of days of unpaid leave to which an employee is entitled depends on whether an employer is obliged to give time off in the first place.

Where the employee is not entitled by law to take unpaid leave

In the case of unpaid leave that is discretionary, an employer can decide whether to give this leave at all and if so, how much to give.

Businesses should have a policy in place clearly setting out employee’s rights and ensure it is fairly administered.

Where the employee has the right to take unpaid leave

In the case of time off that is granted by law, the reason for the absence will dictate how much time off will be given. The most common examples are:

  1. Jury duty: employers will have to allow employees to be away from work for as long as they are required to serve as jurors. It is not obligatory to pay employees during this time, but many employers do.
  2. Public duties: employers are required to allow a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off for employees to perform public duties. If an employer feels that the amount of time requested is unreasonable, they can refuse the employee’s request. 
  3. Employees who need time off to care for a dependent in an emergency are again allowed a reasonable amount of time for this purpose. Examples of a family emergency include a child’s accident or a disruption to care arrangements.

In conclusion

Unpaid leave can be a complex issue. We hope with a little help from this guide you now understand the topic a little better.

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Written by Siva

I write & describe the value & benefits delivered by Paperhift's rota planning, staff time tracking, and employee payroll management software. Especially useful for Shift Planners, Rota Managers, Team Admins, and HR Teams :-)