Prior to lockdown, this was one of the first high-profile UK employment tribunal cases to hit the headlines in 2020, ruling that ethical veganism is a 'non-religious philosophical belief', and should therefore be protected by the Equality Act 2010. Though the ruling does not amount to a binding legal precedent, it may have important and far-reaching effects which all employers should be aware of, when we return to workplaces
Casamitjana v The League Against Cruel Sports
In the case of Casamitjana v The League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), Casamitjana claimed he was dismissed by the animal welfare charity after raising concerns that its pension funds were being invested in companies involved in animal testing. As an ethical vegan, Casamitjana not only followed a vegan diet, but also opposed the use of animals for other purposes to reduce the suffering of animal, so strongly disagreed with the investments made. According to the LACS, this was not the reason for Casamitjana’s dismissal, and cited this was due to his gross misconduct instead. At a preliminary hearing, the judge ruled that ethical veganism qualified as a non-religious philosophical belief by satisfying several tests, including that it was worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflicting with the fundamental rights of others. Therefore, ethical veganism should be protected under the Equality Act 2010.
In the case of Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd, an employment tribunal relayed that vegetarianism is not a 'philosophical belief' under the Equality Act 2010, as for a philosophical belief to come within the legislation, it 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
- be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others
- be worthy of respect in a democratic society
- be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
The employment tribunal held Mr Conisbee's belief could not be described as relating to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. However, it was suggested that it may have come to a different conclusion in relation to veganism. The tribunal could see a "clear cogency and cohesion" in veganism. With vegans having "distinct concerns about the way animals are reared, the clear belief that killing and eating animals is contrary to a civilised society and also against climate control."
Veganism has become a hot topic, with the adoption of the diet for ’Veganuary’ and high-street brands such as KFC and Greggs launched plant-based products. As such, this decision has attracted considerable attention. However, the language surrounding this case has been at times sensationalist, with many calling this a ‘landmark’ case. What is important to recognise is that this remains a finding from an Employment Tribunal, it is not a change in the law. Moreover, the Respondents (The League Against Cruel Sports) did acknowledge that their pension funds were invested in companies involved in animal testing and did not appeal the judge’s ruling. Accordingly, the question of whether ethical veganism should be considered a protected characteristic is unlikely to find itself before a higher court and consequently become legally binding.
The case of Casamitjana v The League Against Cruel Sports was settled with LACS vowing to change their default pension fund to an ethical one closer to their values. They acknowledged “The only reason for the dismissal of Mr Casamitjana in 2018 was his communications to his colleagues in relation to our pension arrangements. Having revisited the issue we now accept that Mr Casamitjana did nothing wrong with such communications, which were motivated by his belief in ethical veganism”.
So what implications does this case have and what should employers be aware of?
At employment tribunal, each case depends on its own facts. It is important to recognise that Casamitjana is a particularly committed vegan. For instance, he will walk rather than take the bus to avoid accidental crashes with insects or birds. The beliefs of other vegans would not necessarily be the same and in an employment tribunal, claimants would need to prove that their belief qualified for the same protection. Nevertheless, the ramifications of this judgement for those that employ vegan staff are potentially significant as it may be that the future cases are likely to yield similar outcomes. This case gives guidance as to the likely treatment of ethical veganism and the types of steps employers should be considering.
Employers will need to ensure they have an awareness of team members who are ethical vegans, to ensure they are not discriminated against during the course of their employment, for their beliefs. Any abuse directed at ethical vegans may be seen to be harassment in the same way a racist or sexist slur might be discriminatory action. In addition, employers will need to think about products and services they provide in the workplace, from vegan-friendly food options in the staff canteen to uniform and furniture choices avoiding wool or leather. Furthermore, this case could also act as an initial gateway for more action of this type, encouraging others to seek similar protection for their non-religious philosophical beliefs.