Compassionate Leave: should there be a statutory right to take time off?

Sefton Kwasnik, Partner, Serious Injury/ Medical Profession, Defence and Inquests, examines the case that there should be a statutory right to take time off on compassionate or bereavement grounds.

I have years of experience representing families at inquest and advising upon issues when a sudden (or any) death may occur. My aim is to provide support and guidance to grieving individuals and families at a very sensitive time in their lives. Over the years I have seen first-hand the effects of grief and as a result I’m the Honorary Legal Officer for The Compassionate Friends, a charitable organisation of bereaved parents.

I believe there should be a statutory right to take time off on compassionate or bereavement grounds and I was interested to see Will Quince, Conservative MP for Colchester raise this issue in Parliament recently.

Mr Quince asked Parliament to amend the law so parents who have suffered the loss of a child are entitled to two weeks off work, paid at the rate of maternity leave.

Current law

At the moment there is no statutory right to take time off on compassionate or bereavement grounds. Under the Employment Rights Act of 1996 employees do have the right to take immediate and a ‘reasonable amount of time’ off for the death of a dependent. But there is no set limit as to how many days can be taken and no statutory right to be paid during this ‘reasonable amount of time’.


While most employers are extremely understanding towards their bereaved staff, sadly not all are. I would offer the following advice when taking time off on compassionate or bereavement grounds. ***

Stay in touch

As leave is granted for a ‘reasonable amount of time’ it’s advisable to stay in regular contact with your employers. Ensure lines of communication with your line manager or HR manager are open and keep them up to date. This transparency will make it easier to ask for more time if you need it and also smoothen your return to work.


Be clear about how much you want your work colleagues to know about your bereavement. This information is private under data protection legislation. Also be clear if you want colleagues to contact you during this time.

Returning to work

Do not feel pressured to return to work sooner than you feel comfortable. Every bereavement is different and while some people cope best immersing themselves in work, others don’t. There will be ups and downs and in some cases the full emotional impact may not be felt for some time.
Set up regular reviews with your line manager to discuss how your return to work is going. You can agree any adjustments which may need to be made and any temporary or long-term changes in hours or responsibilities, for example.

For those suffering the death of a family member it is a tragic experience. The grieving person should be entitled to a statutory right to take time off on compassionate or bereavement grounds.

Seek Extra Help

If you are taking time away from work to deal with the death of a loved one then you may find it helpful during this time to liaise with a medical or other health care professionals. There are a variety of counselling services on offer which may be available to support the bereaved family member.

While Mr Quince’s amendments to the Employment Rights Act 1996 will take their time to get through
Parliament, I hope they do bring about change that’s desperately needed.

When someone close dies, the last thing most people want to do is trawl through their contract of employment to see whether they are entitled to any compassionate leave. Neither would most people relish the prospect of an awkward conversation with a line manager, having to explain who died in order to justify a short period away.

All employees are entitled to ‘time off for dependants’. This is a reasonable amount of unpaid time off to deal with unforeseen matters and emergencies involving a dependant, including leave to arrange or attend a funeral. A ‘dependant’ could be a spouse, partner, child, parent or anyone living in the household. It could also be someone who relies on an employee for their care or for help during an emergency, such as an elderly neighbour.

But what if the deceased is not a dependant? Many employers do have a policy for compassionate leave, which employees can find in their contracts or company handbooks. Experts maintain that writing paid compassionate bereavement leave into a contract can be a major support to employees, and have a long-term positive impact on their relationship with employers. Having a scheme in place is also helpful for managers, who can fall back on written policy and are spared the ordeal of having to assess the seriousness of the situation themselves.

Without such a scheme, it is up to employers to use their discretion, being as reasonable and as consistent as possible. Managers will have to have an eye on what the custom and practice has been in the past and apply precedents fairly and consistently. Even so, employees cannot expect to be granted leave automatically. When leave isn’t granted, they may have to use their holiday allowance.

At BPS Family Law we work closely with families at inquests. We offer practical advice along with a compassionate approach. We’re not about cashing in on people’s upset, we’re about achieving the best possible outcome for families.

If you’re looking for a lawyer to help you with any of the issues mentioned above, then you can get in touch with Sefton at or by telephone on 0161 834 2623.