Rights of employees suffering domestic abuse
Northern Ireland has recently passed the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill, which will entitle victims of domestic abuse the right to up to ten days of paid leave a year from the first day of their employment.
What is the current law?
Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Philippines have already got laws in place which allow those suffering domestic abuse to paid leave. However, the UK currently does not have any legislation in place which entitles staff to paid time off when they are suffering domestic abuse. Northern Ireland is the first nation in the UK to take steps to make this law.
In January 2021, the Government published a report on Workplace support for victims of domestic abuse. The Government report recognised the importance of work and the workplace for victims of domestic abuse. However, it also looked into how abusers can intrude into a victim's work life and what can be done to protect victims at work.
The report considers three aspects of help for victims:
• Employers being able to identify instances of domestic abuse affecting their staff.
• The positive role that employers can play in providing support and access to specialist services.
• The role of employment rights, in particular flexible working.
Following the publication of the report, the Home Office has indicated that it will continue to promote awareness of the role of employers and their duty of care towards employees facing domestic abuse. This includes guidance that has been produced alongside the Domestic Abuse Act which came into force in April 2021.
The Government is also aiming to set up a working group to drive a broader culture change to encourage employers to develop policies and procedures to account for domestic abuse. This group will include Government representatives, employers, trade unions and representatives of domestic abuse victims. The main aims of the group will be to consider how to develop safe and inclusive workplace environments and look into how victims and their employers can be better supported.
Whilst there will always be more support that can be provided, this is a positive step in providing those suffering from domestic violence some support. With Northern Ireland introducing special leave for victims, it may be that the rest of the UK reassess the measures already in place.
What has Northern Ireland introduced?
The Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill will give employees in Northern Ireland a "day one right" to take 10 days of paid leave where they are victims of domestic abuse.
This has yet to be introduced, and future regulations will provide more detail on how this will work, but the Bill sets out the following key points:
• The leave will be available to all employees from the first day of their employment, without any qualifying service requirement.
• The leave is intended to be used for issues relating to the abuse, which could include (but is not limited to) obtaining legal advice, finding alternative accommodation, taking advantage of healthcare, obtaining welfare support and protecting family members.
• The leave may be taken at the same time as other family-related leave.
Why is this important?
In August 2020, a joint investigation by BBC1's Panorama and Women's Aid found that around 2.4 million adults in England and Wales suffered domestic abuse every year. This increased significantly throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, with police receiving reports of domestic abuse every 30 seconds during the first 7 weeks of lockdown alone. The charity Refuge reported an increase of 65% in demand for its helpline and a 700% increase in visits to its website during the initial stages of the pandemic. The increase in demand for services such as these, expedited the need for a review and changes to take place to protect victims of domestic abuse.
Domestic abuse, whilst occurring at home, impacts every part of an individual's life, including their work. As a result, many are asking for changes to happen in the employment setting to ensure that the correct protections are in place for those suffering domestic abuse.
What can employers do to support victims of domestic abuse?
Irrespective of whether any legislation is in place to protect staff, employers can put into place a Domestic Leave/Domestic Abuse Policy and provide relevant training to their workforce. A policy could provide staff with the right to take leave without using up their holiday entitlement, and/or could include other measures of support (such as temporary adjustments to working patterns or hours) to help staff who are victims of domestic abuse.
Training of management, and indeed all staff, could also be implemented to ensure that staff suffering domestic abuse can raise this with the relevant people and get the support they need when at work.