Many parents are missing out on at least four weeks unpaid leave a year that they could be spending with their children, according to a leading solicitor. Lindsey Knowles, head of employment law at Kirwans law firm has highlighted the little-known law as the countdown to the summer holidays begins, and parents across the region struggle to juggle work with childcare.

The employment law expert said employers also need to be aware of the law, in order to prepare for requests for leave, which require only 21 days notice on the part of the employee. Lindsey said: “If you have worked for your current employer for at least a year, you can take 18 weeks unpaid parental leave – which is separate from holiday entitlement – for each child from birth up to their 18th birthday. “Each parent can take up to four weeks leave for each child per year, to a maximum of 18 weeks up to the child turning 18, and you must take parental leave as whole weeks rather than individual days, unless your employer agrees otherwise or if your child has a disability. “The leave can be split throughout the year, so you could take two weeks in the summer and then another two weeks in the autumn. If you have two children under 18 can you take up to eight weeks unpaid leave during the year, three children means you could take 12 weeks, and so on.”

There are numerous reasons parents might need to take time off, such as spending more time with their child after maternity or paternity leave, settling your child into childcare, looking at schools, or just bonding with your child. Even if you’re not living with your child, you can still take unpaid parental leave as long as you have legal parental responsibility for them and will be using the time to care for them.

Although the fact that the leave is unpaid means that many parents will be unable to take up the allowance, Lindsey highlighted the importance of parents being made aware of their entitlements.

She said: “Although the affordability factor will no doubt rule many parents out of using up parental leave, they should still be aware that they have the legal right to take this leave if they can afford to do so.“Rather than trying to hide this legal allowance from employees, employers should use it as part of their commitment to help manage their work/life balance, which is an approach that the UK’s best companies have now adopted.“Employees then know what options are available to them, and if it is viable for them to do so, they may be able to budget throughout the year so that they can afford to take extra time off over Christmas or during the summer holidays.”

All employees, both full and part-time, have the right to take unpaid parental leave, as it works on a pro-rata basis, with leave calculated according to the number of hours parents work.

Although good news for parents, the law could prove to be a logistical nightmare for small businesses, which may struggle to deal with employee requests.

Lindsey said: “All businesses, no matter what size, must offer parental leave. While some employers have company agreements in place, for many others it’s a case of employee and manager making arrangements together. “A fallback scheme applies to cases where employer and employee can’t agree on how the leave will be taken, which stipulates that if your employer feels they can’t accommodate leave because of the effect it would have on business, or because they need more time to put cover in place, they can postpone it for up to six months. “However, employers can’t postpone parents’ requests to take unpaid parental leave immediately after their child’s birth, and if they need to take time off for an emergency, such as child sickness, no notice is required. Parents simply need to inform their employer of the situation as soon as possible, and let them know when they will be back at work.”

Crucially, employers can’t discriminate against parents by, for example, refusing a promotion or denying opportunities open to others, for requesting or taking unpaid parental leave.

Lindsey said: “It is against the law to treat an employee in any way differently if they ask for, or take, leave to which they are legally entitled. Anyone who feels they are being unfairly treated at work should seek advice from their HR department, trade union, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or an employment law solicitor. “Employers, too, may need to seek advice with regards to managing this process in order to ensure they’re not inadvertently breaking the law in the way they handle such requests.”