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Domestic abuse leave introduced in Northern Ireland

30 March 2022

The Northern Ireland Assembly has passed legislation that will entitle victims of domestic abuse to 10 days’ paid leave each leave year. The law was passed in the Assembly’s final week of sitting before the forthcoming Assembly elections in May. The commencement date of the new right remains to be confirmed.

During the Assembly process for the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill (the Bill), the Assembly heard that from 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2021, the Police Service of Northern Ireland responded to 32,219 incidents of domestic abuse in Northern Ireland. This statistic represents a response approximately every 16 minutes and does not account for unreported incidents of abuse. In 2021 domestic abuse crimes in Northern Ireland increased by 9% to 20,827, the highest since records began in 2004. The Assembly also heard that during the period of Covid-19 ‘stay at home’ orders, 17 people were killed by someone close to them.

Currently, employees affected by domestic violence have no alternative but to take sick leave, annual leave or unpaid leave when they need time away from work as a consequence of abuse. Disagreements can arise between employers and employees regarding the use of leave at short notice and the appropriate length of any leave taken. The Bill aims to address difficulties victims experience in the workplace by ensuring that they have a specific statutory right to leave from work. It also aims to protect them from any negative impact on their terms and conditions of employment as a result of taking leave in such circumstances.

In passing the Bill, Northern Ireland is the first jurisdiction within the United Kingdom and Ireland to provide a legal entitlement to paid leave for those affected by domestic violence. 

Bill overview

Regulations relating to the Bill will be required to set out the details of the new right and when it is enforceable.  However, the Bill provides that:

  • an employee or worker who is a victim of domestic abuse will be entitled to take at least 10 days’ paid leave each leave year to deal with issues relating to domestic abuse (safe leave);
  • this will be a ‘day one’ right meaning that no minimum period of service for qualification is required;
  • safe leave is designed to be used by the employee or worker to deal with issues including:
  • obtaining legal advice and pursuing legal proceedings and remedies;
  • finding alternative accommodation;
  • taking advantage of healthcare (including mental health care);
  • obtaining welfare support; and 
  • protecting family members
  • an employee will be entitled to the same terms and conditions of employment while on safe leave; 
  • an employer will be able to establish reasonable conditions relating to the entitlement to safe leave, including what reasonable notice an employee is expected to give before taking such leave; and
  • employees who are prevented from taking safe leave or not paid during the leave will be able to present a complaint to an Industrial Tribunal.

What should employers do now?

Although we do not have a definitive date as to when this right will come into force, employers can take steps within their businesses to prepare for it by creating an environment where employees feel they can disclose that they are experiencing domestic violence. 

In 2018, the Department for Health and the Department for Justice published guidance for employers to develop awareness of and to manage domestic abuse in the workplace. In 2020, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development published guidance on managing and supporting employees experiencing domestic abuse and in 2021, ACAS (in Great Britain) updated its guidance on working from home to include a section on domestic violence and abuse.  This guidance includes information on developing a workplace policy on domestic abuse as well as highlighting support and safety measures which an employer can introduce. Useful recommendations include:

  • introducing a written domestic abuse policy, with clear reporting procedures, details for relevant points of contact and support services;
  • training line managers to allow them to identify the signs of domestic abuse and to respond sensitively and appropriately;
  • appointing a trained support officer or domestic and sexual violence champion in the workplace;
  • while we await further regulations, allowing flexible working and special leave to facilitate employees in making practical arrangements arising from domestic abuse;
  • taking steps to ensure than an alleged abuser does not attend or contact your staff member at the workplace;
  • ensuring affected staff do not work alone or in an isolated area where possible;
  • putting in place effective lines of communication with affected staff to ensure line managers can engage with them to check that they are safe both inside and outside of work; and
  • encouraging affected staff to engage with specialist support agencies and involve professional services where appropriate. 

The Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill can be accessed here

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