You will no doubt have read or heard in the past week about an Employment Tribunal judgment that ‘ethical veganism’ has been determined to be a belief that can be protected under the Equality Act. The reality is that this does not radically or fundamentally change employment law. rradar solicitor Tom Bernard looks at the case and outlines what you need to know.
Under the Equality Act 2010, certain characteristics of an individual are eligible for protection from unlawful discrimination. These are: age, race, sex, disability, pregnancy/maternity, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, marriage and religion/belief.
In the Employment Tribunal case brought by Jordi Casamitjana against his former employer, the League Against Cruel Sports, Mr Casamitjana sought to argue that his belief in ethical veganism was a protected belief and that therefore, he was protected from discrimination on that basis.
To determine if a belief qualifies for protection under the Equality Act, a multi-stage test has been approved in the Courts. The belief must:
be genuinely held;
be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint;
be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others;
have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief; and
it need not be shared by others.
This test is not new and the ability for a wide variety of beliefs to be held to be protected has long been the case. Previous Employment Tribunal cases have found that a belief in public service for the common good, anti-foxhunting beliefs and a belief in climate change are all protected beliefs. On the flipside, a case in late 2019 concluded that vegetarianism was not a protected belief.
In Mr Casamitjana’s case, the Employment Tribunal accepted that a belief in ethical veganism met the above test and qualified for protection. It should be noted though that this fact was not a disputed fact in the proceedings.
It is important to recognise that this case focussed on ‘ethical veganism’ as opposed to veganism. In his claim form, which is publicly available, his belief was described thus:
“he believes in the sanctity of animal life, and that it is essential that humans do not cause distress to animals. This means that he follows a vegan diet but also that his beliefs extend beyond matters of food into all areas of his consumption.”
This finding is in respect of a preliminary issue in the case and no judgment has been made as to whether Mr Casamitjana was discriminated against because of his belief in ethical veganism.
While undoubtedly an interesting judgment, it is not one that fundamentally changes employment law and not one that is likely to have an overarching effect on businesses and employers.
This is a judgment of the first-tier Employment Tribunal; this means that no other Employment Tribunal is compelled or obliged to follow this finding. Furthermore, a decision as to whether an individual’s belief qualifies for protection under the Equality Act is entirely fact sensitive. The circumstances of one ethical vegan can differ substantially from those of another ethical vegan and accordingly the Employment Tribunal would need to give forensic consideration to the circumstances of any case in front of them in respect of a claim that any form of ‘belief’ qualifies for protection.
This case does not add anything radical to existing provisions under the Equality Act; a ‘belief’, provided it meets the requirements set out in earlier cases, has long been something that qualifies for protection from discrimination. The concept of a ‘belief’ can be wide-reaching and varied. This case brings to light that an employer should at all times be conscious that their employees are individuals, that they have different characteristics and different beliefs, and these should be respected in a supportive working environment.
Employers do not necessarily need to go out and re-think their existing policies and practices in the workplace to ensure they are all friendly to ethical vegans. However, we do recommend that businesses and employers review their equality and diversity policies to ensure they recognise that beliefs are protected from discrimination. They may also wish to review their working practices and their workforce to be satisfied that there is nothing currently being done within the business that could be detrimental or seen as discriminatory to their workforce.
If, after reading this article, you feel you need to review your equality and diversity policies and make sure they’re legally compliant and fit for purpose, why not talk to our rradarstation advisors? rradarstation is a resource available through the AXA MLP where policyholders can access rradar’s legal advisory team over the phone or by email and web gateway that provides over 2,000 articles, step-by-step guidance sheets, forms, sample letters and templates to download relating to running your business/organisation.