UK businesses are unprepared for a ‘sea of change’ in working patterns as shared parental leave comes into effect according to law firm Irwin Mitchell.

Shared parental leave (SPL) became effective on 5th April and means that couples due on or after this date or who adopt are eligible to apply for shared up to 50 weeks of leave within the first year.

Law firm Irwin Mitchell believes this mean businesses will face a rise in costly discrimination claims as a result of the law change. This warning follows the firm’s recent research which found that 49 percent of UK couples claim they would be better off financially if they shred parental leave following the birth of their child.

Out of 2,000 couples the survey found that two thirds of men said they would be happy to be a stay-at-home dad. In previous years the majority of fathers had two week paid paternity leave and mothers were entitled to up to 12 months maternity leave, nine of which were paid.

Chris Tutton, an employment partner at national law firm Irwin Mitchell, says:

“One of the key differences between shared parental leave and the system of additional paternity leave it replaces is that it provides the possibility for employees to take their leave in discontinuous blocks.

“Whilst employers can reject requests for discontinuous leave without giving a reason, it would be unwise to do so as employees have the right to withdraw and resubmit their request, and there is no limit on how many times they do so.

“More importantly, employers that reject requests for discontinuous leave face the prospect of grievances and allegations of discrimination, particularly from male employees who may argue that female employees are more likely to have requests for discontinuous leave approved.

“Employers need to be ready to assess requests for discontinuous leave consistently, irrespective of gender and by reference to fair and well-documented business reasons.”

Around 285,000 couples are expected to be eligible for SPL each year but the government predicts that only 5,700 couples will actually take advantage in the first year. Irwin Mitchell believes that many businesses are underestimating the popularity of SPL.

A survey conducted by the law firm suggests that a third of men say they are interested in SPL as the best option for their family as their wife or girlfriend earns more than they do.

Nine out of ten couples where the woman is the main breadwinner say they worry how they would cope financially if the mother were to take full maternity leave. 61 percent of men say they would be happy to become a stay-at-home dad, even if it had a detrimental effect on their careers later on.

Chris Tutton added:

“Our survey suggests that the role of the father could be about to undergo a sea-change. Well over half of men claim they would be happy to become a stay-at-home father, even if it had a detrimental effect on their career in the future.

“If such a material proportion of fathers were to take shared parental leave then we are inevitably going to see an increase in discrimination complaints from male employees that claim their career has suffered as a result. If employers frown on males seeking to exercise these rights as a result of views as to whether men should take the rights available to them, discrimination cases could ensue.

“Whilst most employers are familiar with how to correctly manage and communicate with employees on maternity leave, shared parental leave will pose new challenges.”

Irwin Mitchell’s Top Tips For Dealing With Shared Parental Leave

– Do not underestimate the popularity of Shared Parental Leave – more than a third of men say that being a stay at home dad would be the best financial option from their family

– Don’t leave it to the last minute – employers should put in place appropriate policies and procedures as soon as possible

– Consider requests for discontinuous leave by reference to fair well-documented business reasons

– Conduct an impact assessment of the new rules after six and 12 months. This assessment will help identify uptake and can form the basis of any decision taken on whether to offer enhanced shared parental pay or not.

– Make sure that requests are dealt with in a sensitive and non-discriminatory manner