Employers should be aware of new regulations now in force which govern parental leave, says the employment team at national law firm Berrymans Lace Mawer.

If the UK follows the European trend, unpaid parental leave is unlikely to become a reality to many parents, particularly those on low incomes. In Europe, figures show that fewer than five per cent of men take up parental leave compared to 90% of women.

However, after one year's continuous service, new parents are now eligible for up to 13 weeks' parental leave for each child to be taken before the child's fifth birthday. Entitlement is limited to four weeks' per year for each child, with variations for adopted children and children in receipt of disability living allowance.

An employee must give 21 days' notice of an intention to take leave. Where a father wishes to be present at the birth of his child he must give 21 days' notice before the start of the expected week of childbirth.

Employers may postpone leave where business would be "unduly disrupted" by the employee taking leave. This will particularly help smaller businesses to control their staffing arrangements.

As with maternity leave, an employee's contract of employment will continue during parental leave.

Denial of these rights will give parents the right to claim compensation from an employment tribunal. Similarly, if a parent suffers detriment such as being passed over for promotion, for exercising these new rights, the employer could face a substantial compensation claim.

Government estimates predict a take-up rate of two per cent of eligible fathers and 35% of eligible mothers over the five-year period.

Berrymans believes it is equally unlikely that employers will rush to implement more favourable parental leave terms but these, and other new employment rights, highlight the need for employers to review existing policies and procedures to ensure full compliance and avoid the potential for substantial compensation claims.