The Equality Act came into force in 2010 and provides protection from discrimination against employees, workers and even prospective applicants on the basis of certain characteristics the individual may hold. If you were to suffer discrimination within the workplace on the basis of one of these protected characteristics, this discrimination would be considered unlawful.
One characteristic to be afforded such protection is religion or belief, including philosophical beliefs and even a lack of belief. For such a belief to become a protected characteristic and benefit from protection from discrimination, certain criteria must be met. The belief must:
- be genuinely held;
- be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
- 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; and
- be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
On 3rd January 2020, the Employment Tribunal in Norwich ruled in an interesting but not entirely surprising decision, that ethical veganism is a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010.
Veganism and the decision
Veganism is "a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose." (Vegan Society).
Mr Casamitjana, is an ethical vegan and lives his life in accordance with his strongly held vegan principles. He excludes animal products from his diet and clothing, walks rather than taking the bus in order to avoid accidental collisions with insects and birds and he pays for things with coins and cards as bank notes contain animal products. Mr Casamitjana worked for the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) and says that he was unfairly dismissed after he raised concerns with his colleagues that the LACS pension fund invested in Company's involved in animal testing. LACS say that Mr Casamitjana was dismissed for misconduct and not because of his vegan beliefs.
At a preliminary hearing, Employment Judge Postle was satisfied that the above tests had been met and held that ethical veganism could be a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010. This was not contested by LACS. The full hearing dealing with whether Mr Casamitjana has been the subject of unlawful discrimination will take place at a future date.
So, perhaps unsurprisingly when you consider the criteria set out above and Mr Casamitjana's strongly held beliefs, the tribunal held that in the instant case, Mr Casamitjana's vegan belief was protected.
What does this mean for employers?
The decisions of the Employment Tribunal are not legally binding but do provide useful guidance for subsequent decisions. Unfortunately, this does generate an element of uncertainty for employers because a different decision could be reached in a different case! An employee in another instance would have to persuade the tribunal that they lived their life in accordance with vegan principles and that their belief qualified for the same protection. This makes it tricky for employers to determine when a particular belief would qualify for protection. However, as difficult as it is, if an employee alleges that they have been detrimentally treated on the basis of their belief, it is important that you consider whether the nature of the belief could be protected under the Equality Act.
The decision is of some significance as it potentially paves the way for similarly less 'traditional' beliefs to act as the foundation of a claim for unlawful discrimination, once such beliefs become more established within society.
Employers may wish to revisit their policies and procedures and analyse whether ethical vegans may be affected, for example, food provided in staff facilities and/or at prearranged meetings does contain a vegan option. Additionally, employers should always ensure that they have good, robust reasons for their actions, they can justify their policies and procedures and they employ a regime of mandatory Equality Act training in order to protect themselves against claims of discrimination and are able to utilise the defences therein. Unfortunately, this will not stop an employee from arguing that the action has been taken because of their beliefs but it will increase your prospects of a successful defence and persuading a tribunal to make, for example, a deposit order - a useful tool for employers who find themselves caught up in litigation.
Our Employment department have a wealth of experience and able to assist in your legal case. If you would like to speak to someone to discuss a particular situation we can be contacted on 01603 620508 or email us.