A partner is a business owner and employer, which by definition means they are not an employee. As a consequence, partners do not benefit from all the various employment protections afforded to employees. Despite this, we are often asked about partner entitlements, particularly regarding maternity and childcare.
What is the legal position?
Partners do not benefit from statutory maternity and childcare entitlements, although they are protected from being discriminated against by reason of their pregnancy and maternity, gender and marital status under the Equality Act 2012.
Broadly speaking, the Equality Act provides that women should not be subject to “less favourable treatment”, or subject to unreasonable requirements that they cannot meet because of their pregnancy/maternity or childcare commitments.
The majority of the maternity rights for a partner will be set out in their partnership agreement. These will be binding unless they are found to be discriminatory. In the absence of a partnership agreement, there are very few automatic rights that will accrue.
Particular issues where liability under the Equality Act could accrue include:
- Not engaging or promoting someone to Partner because of concerns that they will be absent due to maternity leave, or won’t be able to “pull their weight” because of childcare commitments;
- Not allowing for any maternity leave at all or a very short period only;
- Not allowing a female Partner who has a pregnancy related illness the same sickness absence entitlements as other sick Partners;
- Reducing profit share during maternity leave;
- Not accruing holiday leave during maternity leave;
- Not allowing a partner to work part time or change session times to deal with childcare commitments.
None of the above are entirely clear-cut and would need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. For example, the Equality Act certainly indicates that holiday leave should accrue in the normal way during some of a partner’s maternity leave, but it is less clear whether this would accrue during the entire period of their absence.
Practices should be aware that they can claim under the SFE for payments to cover locum expenses during maternity, paternity and adoption leave. The common practice is that the absent partner continues to receive profit share whilst the SFE payments are being received. However, if you wish to do this, you will have to ensure that this is set out in your partnership agreement.
This is an area of law that is both complex and uncertain. There is only a limited amount of case law applying specifically to Partners, so each case is likely to be determined on its own merits.
Practices should be very wary of opening themselves to the risk of a discrimination claim, as these have unlimited liability. The best protection is to:
- Ensure that the practice has a clear non-discrimination policy in place which includes discrimination on the grounds of maternity and childcare commitments.
- Make clear that this policy applies to all staff, including partners.
- Ensure that the Partnership Deed is professionally prepared, that it is clear on the subject of maternity and other forms of leave, and that it is kept reasonably current as the law changes. Anything drafted more than 3 years ago may well be out of date with current best practice.
If you have any questions about this or any other matter, please contact Daphne Robertson on 01483 51155 or [email protected]