According to information disclosed to the firm by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) the number of employees claiming paternity pay rose to 194,000 in the year to March 2010 from 170,000 the previous year. However, three times as many women received statutory maternity pay in the same time period.
Plans to create a more flexible shared system of parental leave, enabling both parents to "share parenting responsibilities and balance work and family commitments", were announced last week as part of the Queen's Speech.
"These figures show that there has been a significant shift in attitudes towards paternity leave, but we are still some way from parity," said Katie Douglas, an employment law expert with the firm. "Despite the Government's determination to encourage fathers to take paternity leave, many men still do not exercise their right."
Douglas said that men were likely to be discouraged from taking their full entitlement to paternity pay as the basic statutory rate was "considerably lower" than the average wage. In addition, men may "baulk at the prospect" due to fears that paternity leave is frowned upon by employers.
However, the amount paid out in statutory paternity pay increased by 23% to £43 million in the year to March 2010, which Douglas said could suggest that more men were exercising their right to a full two weeks' paid paternity leave than during the previous year.
The Government introduced extra paternity leave rights in April 2011, allowing fathers to take up to six months leave in the second six months of their child's life if the mother has returned to work without exhausting her maternity leave entitlement, and consulted last year on the introduction of a new system of shared parental leave which would reserve four weeks for each parent but allow parents to split the remainder between them.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) told Out-Law.com last week that the Government's response to the consultation was due "in the next few weeks", with any proposals on shared parental leave due as part of the forthcoming draft Children and Family Bill.
Employers are able to claim back 92% of statutory paternity leave payments, while small businesses entitled to Small Employers Relief can claim back the full 100% plus an additional amount in compensation for their portion of the National Insurance contributions made on the payment. However, employment law expert Douglas said that some businesses were "critical" of any further extensions to paternity leave rights.
"Some business leaders have expressed concerns that any further extension to paternity leave could place increasing burdens on businesses, both in terms of the additional administration involved but also the difficulty of providing suitable cover for the employee taking leave," she said. "A lot of smaller businesses are concerned that an increase in paternity rights would further damage their productivity in what is a very weak economy."
New fathers are currently entitled to up to two consecutive weeks of 'ordinary statutory paternity leave', which must be taken within eight weeks of the child's birth, with pay at the lesser of the statutory amount of £135.45 per week or 90% of average weekly earnings. 'Additional' paternity leave is unpaid, unless the mother has any of her statutory maternity pay entitlement still outstanding in which case the balance will be paid to the father.