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Ethical veganism as a protected characteristic?

Principal Solicitor, Paul McGowan

Although many entering the New Year may be trying ‘Veganuary’ as a new experience in an effort to be more mindful of their health and the environment, Jordi Casamitjana Costa’s claims against his ex-employer, the League Against Cruel Sports (“LACS”), for discrimination on the grounds of his ethical veganism have been ongoing since early 2018. Mr Casamitjana was employed as a Zoologist by the LACS. However, after he disclosed to his colleagues that the employee pension fund was being invested in companies which were linked to animal testing he was dismissed for gross misconduct. In response, Mr Casamitjana brought various claims to the Employment Tribunal, including both direct and indirect discrimination; harassment; victimisation and that he had suffered a detriment as a result of making a protected disclosure. In order for Mr Casamitjana’s claims of discrimination to be successful, he had to establish that his belief in ethical veganism was capable of protection under the Equality Act 2010 as a protected characteristic, which is the issue that was considered in the Tribunal hearing this month.

What is classed as a protected characteristic?

Section 4 of the Equality Act 2010 contains a list of the protected characteristics, which includes ‘religion or belief’. A belief may include a philosophical belief, but for something to be considered a philosophical belief it must satisfy certain requirements set out by case law. The belief must be genuinely held; it must be one as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour; it has attained a certain level of importance and seriousness and it is worthy of respect in a democratic society.

What did the Tribunal decide?

Although it has been reported that the Employment Tribunal in this case decided that ethical veganism should be classed as a protected characteristic, what actually happened was that the LACS conceded that Mr Casamitjana’s beliefs are protected, as it is instead arguing that he was dismissed for gross misconduct unrelated to his beliefs in ethical veganism. Therefore, there has technically been no finding by the Employment Tribunal on the issue, but instead there has been a judgment on the concession by the LACS.

It is worth noting that even if the Tribunal had made a finding that ethical veganism should be protected, that other ethical vegans may not necessarily share the same beliefs as Mr Casamitjana and so may not be guaranteed protection in any event. Also, as with any other decision by an Employment Tribunal, it is not binding on other tribunals and this issue could be decided entirely differently by another Tribunal.

What comes next?

The full written judgment of this decision will likely be published within the next couple of months and the judge’s written reasons will make for an interesting read. We might then see what conclusion the judge would have arrived at had the LACS not conceded the point and the judgment may also give guidance to be used by future Tribunals when considering similar issues.

Unlike some articles have suggested, veganism will not be automatically classed as a protected characteristic, but rather, the position is largely the same as before. Ethical veganism, specifically, may either be considered as a philosophical belief, or not, depending on the particular facts presented to a Tribunal in any given case. Therefore, although this case has given rise to interesting discussions and attention-grabbing headlines, it does not do as much to change the law in this area as it first appears.

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