Maternity leave: why it is important to know your rights

Many women feel vulnerable when they become pregnant. They are not sure where they stand when it comes to maternity leave. Reassurance comes from knowing your rights, writes Susan Belgrave, a myBarrister barrister who is an expert on employment law. Don’t hesitate to consult an expert as well. Susan provided some well informed guidance in Female First.

“Taking maternity leave is a highly personal choice. That choice needs to be informed by what you are entitled to. Pregnant women have rights by law, known as statutory maternity rights (the very minimum that you are entitled to by law), and they may in addition have rights in their contract of employment over and above what they are entitled to by law.

First and foremost are the rights you can claim by law. So, what are your statutory rights?

Time off work

A pregnant woman’s first statutory right is time off work for antenatal care on full pay. This includes doctor’s appointments and classes too, if a healthcare professional has recommended them.

Maternity leave

Most women employees have the right to take up to a year off work as maternity leave. This is made up of ordinary maternity leave – the first 26 weeks – and additional maternity leave - the last 26 weeks. You are entitled to this period of leave, no matter how long you’ve been with your employer, how many hours a week you work or how much you get paid.

Maternity pay

How much you are entitled to by way of statutory maternity pay (SMP) depends on a number of factors. There is a maximum of 39 weeks. If you have worked for the same employer for 26 weeks continuously into the 15th week before your baby is due, you can claim SMP. How much you are entitled to varies from person to person, as it will be dependent on your actual level of earnings.

Returning to your job

Your employment rights are protected during maternity leave. You have the right to return to your job or a suitable alternative. An employer cannot dismiss you for any reason to do with your pregnancy or maternity leave, irrespective of how long you have worked there. If they do so, this will be unfair dismissal.

What to do if your employer fails to meet obligations

If your employer refuses to allow you time off for an antenatal care appointment, maternity leave or pay, you may complain to an employment tribunal within certain strict time limits.

If you want to make a claim, you should consult your union representative, if you are a member of a trade union. Otherwise, consult an expert. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau should have someone familiar with employment law whom you can ask. Or take the advice of a barrister expert in employment law, who can be reached via myBarrister.