A discrimination claim raised by a vegan who was dismissed by the charity which he worked for has led to an Employment Tribunal being asked to determine whether veganism should be recognised as a "philosophical belief" and therefore protected under the Equality Act 2010 ("the Act").

What is a philosophical belief?

Under the Actit is unlawful to discriminate in the workplace because of religion, religious belief, philosophical belief or lack of religion or belief (click here for more information on discrimination in the workplace). Whilst the Act does not define precisely what a philosophical belief is and which specific beliefs are protected, through the development of case law there are certain criteria, set out below, which must be met in order for any belief to fall within the ambit of the Act.

  • A belief must be genuinely held, although it doesn't need to be shared by others;
  • It must be a belief, not just an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
  • It must relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  • It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others;
  • It must have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief, but it doesn't need to allude to a fully-fledged system of thought.

These criteria are judged on a case by case basis, depending on the nature and extent of an individual's belief, including the impact and affect the belief has on how they live their daily life. Beliefs which have been deemed to be capable of protection under the Act include humanism and the belief in man-made climate change.

What constitutes veganism?

Veganism is defined by the Vegan Society as: "A philosophy and 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; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans; animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."

The claimant in this case is arguing that he is protected against discrimination as an 'ethical vegan': and that his beliefs affect all aspects of his life, not just his diet.

The employment tribunal claim

The claimant was a zoologist working as head of policy and research for the League Against Cruel Sports. He argues that he was dismissed after raising concerns that his employer's pension fund was investing in companies that tested on animals. His employer's position is that he was dismissed for gross misconduct after failing to follow express management instructions.

The Employment Tribunal will decide whether veganism is a protected philosophical belief and if it is, the discrimination claim will proceed to a full hearing.

If ethical veganism is given protected status, it will be significant for the steadily increasing vegan population in the UK (estimated figures currently stand at 600,000) and their employers. Employers will have to carefully consider whether their current policies and practices are suitable for employees with ethical vegan beliefs and make any necessary adjustments to ensure they are not discriminatory.

Human rightsand veganism

Interestingly veganism is already considered as a protected belief under human rights legislation. In terms of the Human Rights Act 1998 all public authorities and other bodies carrying out public functions have to act in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 9 protects an individual's right to freedom of thought, conscious and religion, including both the freedom to change religion or belief and a qualified right to manifest that belief. Currently a wide range of philosophical beliefs are recognised under Article 9 including veganism, humanism, atheism and pacifism.

In the meantime, Workbox users can find more information on religion or belief discrimination here.

If you would like to discuss anything raised in this blog, please get in touch with your usual Brodies contact.

See our latest blog on the case here, following the Employment Tribunal's decision that ethical veganism was a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.