There have been a number of changes in family friendly legislation taking effect from April. These are designed to give working parents more flexibility and to expand rights on adoption. The most significant change is the introduction of shared parental leave, although changes have also taken place to the parental leave and adoption leave regimes.

Parental Leave

Since 5th April 2015, parents (adoptive parents and others who take parental responsibility for a child) with one year’s service have the right to eighteen weeks unpaid parental leave up to the child’s 18th birthday (previously a maximum of 5 years). We anticipate that this change is likely to lead to an increase in parents with school age children taking time off to cover school holidays.

Adoption Leave

Prior to 5 April 2015 parents wishing to adopt had to comply with different rules from parents taking maternity leave. Changes have now been made so that the adoption leave regime is aligned with the maternity leave one. This means that parents wishing to take adoption leave can now do so from day one of employment and face the same 26-week service requirement and basis of calculation of statutory adoption pay as those on maternity leave. Rights have also been extended so that surrogate parents who have applied for a parental order will also be entitled to take adoption leave. Eligible adoptive parents are now also able to take paid time off prior to any adoption to attend up to 5 adoption appointments for a period of up to 6.5 hours each appointment.

Shared Parental Leave

The biggest area of change is the introduction of shared parental leave, which is available to parents of children born or placed for adoption on or after 5 April. To take advantage of this scheme both parents must eligible to do so (which essentially means that they are economically active). This is an entirely voluntary regime and maternity leave and maternity pay remains the default system. Fathers are still able to take two weeks ordinary paternity leave, but additional paternity leave has been abolished.

The new regime means that parents can share 50 weeks leave and 37 weeks shared parental pay during the first year of their child’s life (or in the first year after the child’s placement for adoption). Only the 2 week compulsory maternity leave period or equivalent 2 week period in adoption cases is excluded and reserved solely for the mother. Parents can take leave at the same time as each other or take leave in shorter blocks interspersed with periods of work (known as discontinuous leave).

One of the trickiest issues with shared parental leave, both from an employer and employee perspective is the level of pay available. For many employees finance will dictate which parent takes leave and unless they are no worse off under the new shared parental regime than the maternity or adoption regimes they are unlikely to take it up. On the other hand, whilst the government guidance has said that there is no legal obligation to enhance pay, there are some risks attached if an employer offers enhanced rates to mothers on maternity leave but not to those on shared parental leave. We anticipate that there may be a challenge by a father who has been paid less in comparison to a mother on maternity leave.

On a more immediate practical level the eligibility rules and notification requirements are not simple and it will take time for employees and employers alike to get to grips with the new process, particularly the possible new patterns of leave and the ‘SPLIT’ days which allow employees up to 20 days work during leave to keep in touch.

In conclusion, as with other family friendly laws shared parental leave is likely to be a slow burn. That is unless you’re lucky enough to work for Virgin Management who has announced that it will pay full pay for up to a year of leave.