By Emma Hawksworth
A new paternity leave scheme came into effect on April 6, 2011 but how many families know how it affects them? Our experience, as lawyers who advise individuals on their employment rights, is that very few are aware of this new right. So mothers take note - additional leave for your partner could mean more flexibility for you.
Previously new fathers - or the partner of the child's mother - were only allowed to take up to two weeks of statutory paid paternity leave. Under the new scheme, some are now entitled to take additional paternity leave (APL) of up to 26 weeks.
The intention of the new APL scheme is to give parents more flexibility to share care for a new baby in the early months. However, the early weeks are still reserved for the mother, and fathers or partners can only begin APL once the child is 20 weeks old. APL must be completed by the child's first birthday. Fathers must give their employer eight weeks notice of their intention to take APL. For example, if your child was due on April 3 and the father wishes his leave to commence as soon as possible, he should inform his employer by June 26.
It's important to note that eligibility is limited, and only some parents will benefit from the extended scheme. To qualify for additional paternity leave, both parents must be employees - so only couples with both partners working will benefit. The mother must have been entitled to statutory maternity leave or statutory maternity pay/allowance, and the father or partner must have at least 26 weeks' service with their employer by the 15th week before the due date.
APL can only commence once the child's mother has returned to work from maternity leave. Those whose wives or partners don't work will not have the right to take APL, and their time off will be limited to two weeks' ordinary paternity leave, supplemented if they wish by unpaid parental leave or annual leave. For those taking APL, this is only paid where the child's mother returns to work with some of her 39 week entitlement to statutory maternity pay (or maternity allowance) untaken, since the scheme permits a ‘transfer' of the untaken statutory pay from the mother to the father or partner. Statutory paternity pay in the UK is currently £128.73 per week, or, if lower, 90 per cent of average weekly earnings.
Decisions about childcare in the early months are highly personal ones, and legal entitlements at this important time should not reinforce stereotypes about the respective roles of mothers and fathers. So the flexibility introduced by this new scheme is certainly a step in the right direction towards creating an environment of choice for parents.Emma Hawksworth is an Employment Partner at Russell Jones & Walker