New Northern Irish employee right: Paid domestic abuse leave
The Northern Irish Assembly has passed the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill entitling victims of domestic abuse to at least 10 days paid leave each year to deal with domestic abuse issues. Regulations will be required to set out the detail and commencement date but we know the basics of the right, which should encourage most employers to think about preparations for its implementation now. Notably Northern Ireland is the first UK jurisdiction to introduce these rights for employees, which is a regrettable but necessary reaction to societal need.
Domestic abuse has long been an issue in every society. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the issue as, for many, the boundaries between work and home have become less distinct. Hybrid working has often indirectly resulted in this problem being exacerbated with domestic abuse crimes in NI rising by 9% in 2021. Home is not a safe place for many people and enforced lockdown has meant that they have been isolated with their abuser, ironically losing the workplace as their safe haven. It has been reported that between 1 January – 31 December 2021 the PSNI responded to 32,219 incidents of domestic abuse; roughly one every 16 minutes, every day. During the "stay at home" times, 17 people were killed by someone close to them.
It is in response to these growing concerns that NI has now become the first UK jurisdiction to implement statutory entitlement to paid leave for victims of domestic abuse.
What protections are currently afforded to domestic abuse victims?
Employers owe their staff a duty of care. However, currently where victims of domestic abuse need time off work they are only able to use sick leave, annual leave or (where their employer allows it) unpaid leave. They are often at the mercy of their employer in agreeing to such leave at short notice which can give rise to added pressures on the domestic abuse victim at an already fraught time in their lives.
What does the Bill provide?
The Bill is designed to allow some certainty for both victims and their employer by setting out a defined statutory entitlement to paid leave. It also builds in protections for the victim to stop their terms and conditions being adversely affected as a result of taking the leave.
The key elements of the Bill are:
- There will be no qualifying service to benefit from the right so employees have this right from the first day of their employment
- The right entitles the victim to at least 10 days' paid leave per leave year to "deal with issues related to domestic abuse". That will include matters such as:
- Finding alternative accommodation
- Getting legal advice and/ or pursuing legal proceedings
- Protecting family members
- Getting welfare support
- Getting healthcare support
- Employers will be able to set reasonable pre-conditions for the taking of the leave. This is likely to include the notice that the employee needs to give before taking the leave. Employers are likely to be required to be reasonable with any such pre-conditions and to minimise the length of the required notice as far as is practicable, keeping in mind that there may be an urgent need for the employee to take the leave at extremely short notice.
- Employees will be entitled to the benefit of their usual terms and conditions
- Safe leave may be taken at the same time as other family-related leave
How can employers prepare for the new rights?
Whilst the implementation date is still awaited, there are many things an employer can be doing now to prepare for the new rights. Whilst Northern Ireland is the first jurisdiction to introduce the right, there have already been significant studies and guidance in this area across the UK. The key recommendations for employers coming out of these are:
- Develop a written policy on domestic abuse that sets out clear reporting lines and includes support services contact details
- Notify staff of the new rights under the policy, especially the Payroll team who will be tasked with discrete implementation
- Train supervisors and line managers on how to spot potential signs of domestic abuse and how to handle these sensitively and appropriately. Signs can vary hugely, for example unexplained changes in productivity, frequent absence or lateness, becoming isolated from colleagues, a strong reaction to telephone calls home, change in the amount of makeup being used, clothes that do not suit the weather (potentially being used to hide injury).
- Consider appointing a domestic abuse support officer in work as a safe point of contact for victims
- Check in with all staff working remotely to check that they are safe working from home. This needs to be handled delicately as it will be important for the employer not to inadvertently alert an abuser that his/ her partner is reporting an issue of abuse.
- Consider what systems and procedures may need to be implemented to prevent an abuser contacting an employee
The four “R’s” approach is used by many employers as a recommended framework for dealing with domestic abuse situations:
Recognise - recognise the problem and train staff to enable them to understand the issues and spot potential signs of domestic abuse
Respond - implement policies and procedures to reassure staff that you are a supportive employer and that supervisors and managers will take appropriate action
Refer - ensure that staff have access to confidential support internally and provide details of external organisations that can help
Record – it is vitally important to confidentially record any report of domestic abuse. This record could be an important piece of evidence should the abuse become the subject of criminal proceedings.
In Great Britain, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has produced a report on improving workplace support for victims of domestic violence and ACAS has developed a guide. While we anticipate the LRA here will follow suit, it will be nevertheless interesting to see how the other UK jurisdictions deal with this issue in the coming months. For now we are keeping a watching brief for the Northen Ireland Regulations and we will update this article when they become available.
For further information, in relation to this topic please contact Shirley Blair, Associate or any member of ALG's Belfast Employment & Incentives team.
Date published: 11 April 2022