By by Sarah Calderwood, employment specialist at law firm Slater Heelis. www.slaterheelis.co.uk/employment

A recent high-profile Twitter row between celebrity mums Denise Van Outen and Natalie Cassidy has raised the debate about when women should go back to work after having a baby. The argument brought to the fore how challenging and fraught the decision can be for parents — without the added strain and pressure of high-profile figures criticising each other. All women are faced with different personal circumstances — and also preferences — when it comes to work / life balance and having children. But regardless of the media debate there are laws and legal obligations around maternity leave that are there to help.

Whether women believe having a baby is their priority or returning to work is higher on their agenda, new mothers cannot go back to work for at least two weeks after the birth. This is increased to four weeks for women who work in a factory. This legislation is in line with health and safety and is called Compulsory Maternity Leave.

Mothers who are employed are entitled by law to up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave, but whether they take the full quota of time is a personal decision. During this time, some women will be entitled to maternity pay. Regardless of this, all women must be given the right to return to work after their maternity leave (unless a genuine redundancy situation applies), otherwise they will be breaking sex discrimination laws. However, the role they will be offered will depend on whether they return from Ordinary Maternity Leave (OML, as outlined above) or Additional Maternity Leave (AML). If you take OML only, then you are entitled to return to your employment in the same job as before your absence, with the same pension rights and seniority as if you had not been away.

Should you have taken AML, mothers are subject to the same rules as above, unless it is not reasonably practicable for them to do the same role as before. In this case, employers must offer women a job that is both appropriate and suitable under the circumstances.

Redundancy is also a common issue I am asked about regarding maternity leave, as redundancies can be made while a new mother is still absent from work. If this does happen, women on maternity leave are entitled to be offered any suitable, alternative position within the organisation, on terms and conditions that are not substantially less favourable, ahead of others who are at risk of redundancy, regardless of who would be most qualified for that role.

Many women will change their minds about when to go back once their baby has arrived, and this could be to go back earlier or later than previously thought. This could be dictated by their body and knowing when they are rested enough to return. However, if women do decide that they want to return earlier than previously agreed with their employer, they must give at least eight weeks’ notice.

By Sarah Calderwood, employment law specialist at Slater Heelis. www.slaterheelis.co.uk/employment