Ethical veganism – A philosophical belief?

Posted on: December 31st, 2018

This month, considerable press attention has been given to the case of a vegan employee, Mr Casamitjana, who was sacked from his job as Head of Policy and Research at the League Against Cruel Sports. Charlotte Allery takes a look at the potential impact of this case on employers and employees.

Mr Casamitjana claims that he was dismissed from his role at the League Against Cruel Sports after raising concerns that the organisation’s pension fund was being invested in companies involved in animal testing. He has now brought a claim that his dismissal was discriminatory as it was linked to his ethical veganism, which, he argues, amounts to a ‘religious or philosophical belief’, protected under the Equality Act 2010.

However, in a statement to the BBC, his previous employer argues that he was dismissed for gross misconduct and that the link to his veganism is “factually wrong”.

Mr Casamitjana’s Employment Tribunal claim is scheduled to be heard in March 2019 and its outcome, whatever this may be, will no doubt create further headlines. Before then, we take a brief look into the legal issues at play.

Is ‘veganism’ protected from discrimination?

Veganism itself is not a protected characteristic that is afforded protection from discrimination under the Equality Act. However, Mr Casamitjana’s lawyers argue that ethical veganism, being more than simply a dietary choice, falls within the definition of a ‘philosophical belief’, which is protected under the Equality Act.

The law provides that a philosophical belief must:

  • Be genuinely held;
  • Be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint;
  • Relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • Have attained 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.

Whilst not all lifestyle choices will meet the above criteria, it is easy to see why some consider that ethical veganism falls neatly into the scope of ‘philosophical belief’.

However, in 2009, the draft Code of Practice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is to be considered by tribunals when handling claims under the Equality Act, gave veganism as an example of a potential philosophical belief. Nevertheless, this was removed from the final version of the Code of Practice, as the Government stated that being a vegan was not to be covered by the legislation itself, whilst accepting this was a matter for the courts to determine.

Indeed, subsequently, a tribunal has determined that a belief in the sanctity of life, including strong anti-fox hunting and anti-hare coursing beliefs, constituted a philosophical belief. We now wait to hear the tribunal’s view on the topic of ethical veganism.

The impact of this case

It is important to remember that the outcome of this case may not be the ‘landmark decision’ that some media outlets would have you believe. The tribunal firstly has to decide the reason for the dismissal. It may of course conclude that Mr Casamitjana’s belief was not connected to his dismissal, as his employer asserts, meaning that his case will fail.

However, if Mr Casamitjana does win the case and the tribunal determines that he was indeed discriminated against on the basis of his philosophical belief of ethical veganism, as this is only a judgment of the Employment Tribunal, it will not be a binding decision that other cases would be obliged to follow. The decision would have to be made by the Employment Appeal Tribunal to become binding.

However, with statistics from The Vegan Society showing that there are 600,000 vegans in Great Britain (i.e. 1.16% of the population), the outcome of this case will be interesting to many, both employees and employers alike. A decision in Mr Casamaitjana’s favour may result in other cases concerning veganism or other ethical lifestyle choices following suit. Watch this space!

If you have any questions on the content of this article, or discrimination in the workplace generally, please get in touch with the Employment team here.