You can’t sack me, I’m vegan14 Jan 2020 // Insights
Employment Solicitor Steven King discusses the recent case that ruled ethical veganism as a philosophical belief.
Ethical veganism has been ruled as a philosophical belief protected under the Equality Act 2010.
This was declared in the recent case of Casamitiana v The League Against Cruel Sports. The decision has transcended law reports to feature considerably in the mainstream news, despite not even being the final judgment of the case. The case relates to the fairness of Mr Casamitiana’s dismissal and whether he was treated less favourably because of his belief in ethical veganism. However, what this initial ruling means is that ethical veganism qualifies as a philosophical belief which merits protection from unlawful discrimination by employers.
The reason this decision is so significant is that, in part, UK legislation dictates the types of claims that employees can bring based on their length of service. Protection from unfair dismissal comes when an employee has achieved two years of continuous employment with a company. Therefore, generally, an employer can dismiss an employee without a fair reason and without following a fair procedure during their first two years. By contrast, protection from discrimination starts even before someone has worked their first shift. Individuals have protection from discrimination even when applying for a job and certainly do not have to wait two years to be protected. Therefore, any employee who is dismissed during their first two years cannot argue unfair dismissal, but can argue that their dismissal is discriminatory (potentially including ethical vegans) and bring a claim.
Due to this distinction between unfair dismissal and discrimination, you have seen various attempts by claimants to allege that their philosophy amounts to a protected belief. These include beliefs in climate change, Scottish independence, and now ethical veganism. Prior to this ruling, it was believed that an individual without protection from unfair dismissal could be treated less favourably and even dismissed because of their veganism. It was confirmed specifically by the government that veganism was not a belief capable of protection. The decision in Casamitiana is a first instance decision only which does not have to be followed by future tribunals. However, it illustrates that the courts and tribunals are willing to discard the government’s opinion and extend protection to ethical vegans.
Religion or belief is one of eight protected characteristics which cannot be discriminated against under UK law. According to a recent poll, vegans account for around 600,000 people in the UK. Looking forward, as veganism and other progressive philosophies become more mainstream, it is possible that you could see a significant expansion of protected characteristics, or even the emergence of new characteristics, which businesses will have to abide by.
If an employee is failing to follow a reasonable management instruction by asserting a religious, cultural, or philosophical belief as the reason for their conduct, then this should be acknowledged and considered before action is taken. Alternatively, ethical vegans could be harassed by their colleagues due to their belief or could be victimised if they are subjected to a detriment after making a complaint about their treatment. Those organisations who wish to err on the side of caution should respect ethical vegan principles in the same way they would any other religious principle. Otherwise, companies may see an increase in claims asserting protection from discrimination, citing veganism or a similar belief. As this is a first instance decision only which could also be appealed, undertaking any significant overhaul of training materials and policy documents may be slightly premature, however, this development is something companies should be mindful of.
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