An employment tribunal in Norwich has ruled that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief that is protected by law against discrimination and as such benefits from the protection of the Equality Act 2010. The claim was brought by Mr Casamitjana against his former employer, The League Against Cruel Sports, in which he argued that his dismissal was an act of discrimination based on his philosophical belief.
This comes not long after the case of Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited where, after consideration of the same question in relation to vegetarianism, the Employment Tribunal ruled that vegetarianism was not capable of amounting to a philosophical belief as it did not have a similar status or cogency to religious beliefs. By comparing the two, vegetarianism and ethical veganism, we can start to appreciate what is required of a belief in order for the protection of the Equality Act 2010 to be afforded to it.
What is Ethical Veganism
Ethical vegans not only eat a plant-based diet, but also try to avoid using products derived from any form of animal exploitation such as not wearing clothing made of leather or wool and not using products tested on animals. In this regard they are differentiated from dietary vegans, who simply abide by a plant-based diet, and vegetarians who abstain from meat and other animal derivatives such as gelatine.
What Constitutes a Philosophical Belief
Back in 2009 an Employment Tribunal heard the claim of Mr Nicholson, a Claimant who had been made redundant by his employer Grainger Plc, and who asserted that he held a philosophical belief in climate change. Mr Nicholson said that his belief influenced his choice of home, how he travels, what he buys, eats and drinks, and what he does with his waste. The Tribunal concluded that this did amount to a philosophical belief.
Grainger Plc appealed that decision to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) challenging that decision. The EAT held that an employee’s asserted belief that mankind is heading towards catastrophic climate change and we are under a moral duty to act to mitigate or avoid this is capable of being a philosophical belief
The EAT further concluded that there was no doubt that some limit must be placed upon the definition of “philosophical belief” and set out some guidance stating that in order to fall under the protection of the provision:
- the belief must be genuinely held;
- it must be a belief rather than an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
- it must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
- it must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
- it must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
This case was considered under previous legislation, the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, however following on from this judgment, the Explanatory Note of the Equality Act now echoes these criteria and so they remain applicable to date.
Harron v Chief Constable of Dorset Police went on to add that the proper approach to determining whether or not there is a qualifying belief is not just to apply the five criteria set out in Grainger but to also have regard to the way in which those criteria are applied and suggested that the requirements should not be set at too high a level.
In light of the above, it would be fair to say that philosophical belief is open to wide interpretation but what is clear when we compare the cases of Grainger and Casamitjana to the Conisbee case is that where those beliefs amount to a simple lifestyle or dietary choice they are unlikely to have the cogency required to meet the requirements of a philosophical belief. However, when that belief affects the way a person lives to the extent that it influences matters such as what they wear, how they travel, how they dispose of waste and when such choices are borne out of that individual’s feeling that they are under a moral duty to act in that way, to mitigate or to avoid then it is likely that it will constitute a philosophical belief.
What effect does this have on businesses?
Firstly, whilst this is in many ways a landmark decision, it is not one that is binding on other courts. The matter was decided in the court of first instance and so another Tribunal would be free to make a different decision subject to the guidance discussed earlier in this article. The Respondent in this case did not contest the Claimant’s assertion that ethical veganism amounted to a philosophical belief by virtue of its animal rights value, which is unsurprising given the nature of their work in animal welfare and action against cruelty in that context. As such, we won’t be seeing this same case taking the question to a higher court capable of setting precedent.
Cheryl Moolenschot, Litigation Consultant at EML, comments:
“Whilst the reporting on this case has been to say that ‘Ethical Veganism is a protected characteristic’ I would have to respectfully disagree that this is what has been decided here. What this case shows us is that it is capable of being a philosophical belief but each case will need to be reviewed on its own merits until such time as clear guidance is handed down from a higher court. Notwithstanding the above, this is certainly a gateway case and ethical vegans in the workplace may be emboldened to stand up where they consider themselves discriminated against, e.g. in respect of being treated less favourably or having been subjected to provisions, criteria or practices which, by virtue of their ethical veganism, place them at a disadvantage. As such, employers would be well advised to ensure that their Equality and Diversity policies are up to date and it would be prudent to include ethical veganism as an example of a philosophical belief. Training on equality, diversity and dignity in the workplace would also be desirable as we enter what may be a new era of philosophical belief, not because the definition has changed, but because, if nothing else, this case has opened the public’s eyes to what beliefs may benefit from legal protection.”