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Employment Tribunal rules ethical veganism to be a philosophical belief

A recent case that has seen “ethical veganism” recognised as a philosophical belief has potential implications for employers, explains Lodders’ employment law specialist, Nick Rowe.

In a preliminary hearing on 3 January, a Norwich employment tribunal in Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports found that “ethical veganism” is a philosophical belief and that ethical vegans should be entitled to the same protections under employment law as those who hold religious beliefs.

The case was brought by vegan Jordi Casamitjana, who claims he was sacked by the League Against Cruel Sports because of his ethical veganism. His former employer, however, says he was dismissed for gross misconduct.

The question of whether the claimant was unfairly dismissed by his employers because of his belief is yet to be decided, but this summary judgment has already provoked mixed reactions, and may require employers to reconsider provisions in the workplace in the future.

Background

“Religion or belief” is one of the nine characteristics protected by the Equality Act 2010, so a declaration that a particular belief falls under that title has the potential to impact many areas of law, including education, property and public services, and employment.

In 2009, a belief in climate change was found in Grainger plc v Nicholson to constitute a philosophical belief, and it was in this judgment that the test for what could constitute a protected characteristic was set out.

In June 2019, the Norwich employment tribunal of Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited and others found that vegetarianism did not constitute a philosophical belief, as it failed on several of the points. One of these was the requirement of cogency, as people are vegetarian for a variety of different reasons; as well as the requirement of the belief being a ‘weighty and a substantial aspect of human life and behaviour’.

Whilst employment tribunals cannot create binding case law, as veganism has been found in this case to be a protected characteristic for the purpose of the Equality Act, it is likely that other courts and tribunals could follow suit.

Advice for employers

Consideration therefore needs to be given to ensure there is no direct or indirect discrimination caused by virtue of an employee holding this belief. Provisions for ethical vegans might include optional alternatives to leather or wool products, as well as hygiene or cleaning products that are marked ‘cruelty free’. The extent to which employers will be required to accommodate such rights is as yet unclear.

Critics of the decision are wary that this may lead to newly empowered vegans making unreasonable demands, and that this may open a floodgate for other individuals to declare new beliefs at will. However, the Tribunal in Consibee stated that it must ‘guard against applying too stringent standards’, while the test set out in Nicholson limits abuse by providing a framework that, amongst other things, requires a belief to be ‘serious, important, not incompatible with human dignity, and not in conflict with the fundamental rights of others’.

Dismissal case

The crux of Mr Casamitjan’s case is, of course, whether or not his dismissal by his employer constituted a breach of discrimination law under the Equality Act 2010, and that will be decided in February.

The League Against Cruel Sports has not disputed the assertion that ethical veganism should be a protected belief, only its relevance to Mr Casamitjan’s dismissal, which is stated to be gross misconduct in light of his disclosure of details of the organisation’s pension investment portfolio to colleagues. Employers and legal practitioners will certainly be awaiting the tribunal’s decision with interest.

Lodders’ team of employment solicitors offer accurate, focused and solution-based legal advice to a wide range of clients. We have forged an excellent reputation for advising SMEs, publicly owned companies, charities and other bodies; as well as senior employees and stakeholders in respect of all manner of employment law related issues and, in particular, in respect of discrimination of all kinds.

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For more information, please contact Nick Rowe on 01242 229096, or via email.