Time to focus on the kids

The right to parental leave is being extended and lawyers must ensure their clients are up to speed

Carolyn Brown

Among the raft of employment law rights protecting working parents the right to unpaid parental leave is something of a poor relation. With low take-up rates and limited awareness, businesses could be forgiven for seeing recent Government reforms as little more than tinkering. However, the changes herald a much more far-reaching package of reforms that will have big implications for employment lawyers and their clients.

Employees who have one year’s service and are responsible for a child have the right to take unpaid leave to care for that child. Being ‘responsible for a child’ does not depend on having formal parental responsibility under the Children Act 1989, so unmarried biological fathers may also be eligible.

Employees who take parental leave can return to the same job or a suitable alternative one. The key terms and conditions of the employment contract remain in force.

At present, employees can take up to 13 weeks’ leave before the child’s fifth birthday or, for children entitled to disability living allowance, 18 weeks’ leave at any time before the child’s 18th birthday. From 8 March this entitlement will be increased to 18 weeks’ leave for all children.

Take-up of parental leave appears to be low. In a 2012 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills survey only 11 per cent of employees with a child younger than six said they had taken parental leave. It seems unlikely that increasing the leave period will result in much higher take-up.

However, this is only the first stage. The Government proposes to introduce measures to increase flexibility for parents including:

The right to request flexible working to be extended to all employees with 26 weeks’ service;

A new Acas code on flexible working will be introduced; and

Most radically, parents will be able to share maternity leave rather than the mother taking the full 52 weeks’ leave.

The flexible working changes are expected to come into force in 2014 and the maternity changes in 2015, although a definitive timetable has not yet been announced. Consultation on the new code and the administration of shared parental leave began on 25 February and employment lawyers are assessing the implications.

In the short term, employment lawyers will need to ensure that their clients are aware of the changes that are coming in soon. How­ever, the real challenge for lawyers is to ensure that their clients are adequately prepared for the reforms being introduced in the next few years. In particular, flexible working arrangements can throw up stark conflicts between business requirements and employees’ aspirations for their work-life balance, as well as between the competing needs of individual employees.

Lawyers advising in this area need to start preparing their clients now for the challenges that lie ahead.

HowardKennedyFsi solicitor Alexandra Mizzi assisted with this article