In Harron v Chief Constable of Dorset Police UKEAT/0234/15/DA, the Employment Appeal Tribunal considered whether a belief in 'proper and efficient use of public money in the public sector' could amount to a philosophical belief and receive protection under the Equality Act 2010.

Facts

Mr Harron was an employee who submitted a significant number of suggestions for changes to working practices to his employer, Dorset Police (DP), which he said he made with the aim of saving public money. Mr Harron alleged that this behaviour made him unpopular at work and that he was subjected to a number of detriments by DP because of his suggestions, including being passed over for promotion and his job being put in jeopardy.

Mr Harron brought several discrimination claims against DP under the Equality Act 2010 (the Act), including claims for direct and indirect discrimination relating to religious or philosophical belief. Mr Harron claimed that he had a profound belief in 'the proper and efficient use of public money in the public sector', that this amounted to a philosophical belief and that DP's actions in relation to his efficiency suggestions constituted discrimination.

Background

The Act defines a number of 'protected characteristics' relating to individuals. A person is protected from discriminatory treatment by employers and other workers because of a protected characteristic.

One such protected characteristic is a person's 'religion' or their 'religious or philosophical belief' under section 10 of the Act.

The meaning of 'philosophical belief' has been considered in a number of cases and is somewhat wider than one might expect. For a belief to receive protection under the Act, the following criteria must be met:

  • The belief must be genuinely held
  • It must be a belief, as opposed to an opinion or viewpoint based on information
  • It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
  • It must have a level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
  • It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not be incompatible with human dignity or conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Previous cases have confirmed that a wide range of beliefs can qualify for protection under the Act, including a belief in environmental responsibility relating to climate change, a belief in the sanctity of life in relation to fox hunting and belief in some political systems.

Conversely, various other beliefs have not qualified for protection, such as the belief that everyone should wear a poppy (which was not sufficiently weighty or serious), a number of extreme political views (which were incompatible with human dignity and the rights of others) and belief in conspiracy theories (which were held to lack cogency and were not worthy of respect in a democratic society).

However, cases are very much decided on their facts and the individual beliefs of the person involved.

Employment tribunal decision

The employment tribunal (ET) dismissed Mr Harron's claims relating to philosophical belief at a preliminary hearing and gave a short explanation for its reasoning.

While the ET concluded that Mr Harron's views were genuinely held and were worthy of respect in a democratic society, it found that they did not meet the other criteria required to constitute a philosophical belief. The ET stated that Mr Harron's views were a set of objectives or values rather than a belief and that, as these were confined to the workplace, they did not relate to a weighty aspect of human life and did not have the requisite level of seriousness and importance.

The ET also stated its view that a belief must have a status or cogency that is similar to a religious belief for it to be a philosophical belief and receive protection under the Act.

Mr Harron appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), on the grounds that the ET had set the bar too high when applying the five criteria and that it had not given sufficient reasons for its decision.

EAT decision

The EAT held that the ET had taken the wrong approach when considering Mr Harron's belief.

In particular, the EAT said that the ET may have set the bar too high when considering the criteria and the reasons it had given for its decision were insufficient to determine whether this was the case.

In relation to the second criterion, the EAT stated that it did not see any reason to distinguish between a set of values and a belief, as the ET had done, and that objectives might often result from following a particular belief. The EAT stated that it did not fully understand the ET's reasoning in relation to the second criterion based on the brief reasons given in its judgment.

The EAT also cautioned against requiring too high a standard in respect of the third and fourth criteria and clarified that, provided the belief was capable of being understood and related to matters that were more than merely trivial, it would likely satisfy these criteria. However, the EAT did clarify that a belief that related solely to the workplace may be too narrow to qualify for protection.

The EAT therefore overturned the ET's decision regarding Mr Harron's belief and remitted the case to the ET. The ET will now re-consider the matter in light of the EAT's clarification of the correct legal approach.

Comment

Although no final decision has been reached as to whether Mr Harron's views are protected as a philosophical belief, the EAT's decision serves to emphasise the wide meaning of that phrase under the Act.

Employees who express controversial views or beliefs in the workplace can often present management challenges for employers and it is worth considering whether the employee's views may be protected under the Act when considering any disciplinary action or other treatment that may be regarded as detrimental. This question will depend to a large extent on the employee's beliefs (rather than the status of their belief system as a whole, if they have one) and how the beliefs manifest themselves.

Any beliefs that are obviously trivial, incoherent or which conflict with the fundamental rights of others (which is likely to include most extreme political beliefs) are unlikely to receive protection under the Act. However, given the wide meaning of philosophical belief and the variety of views that it can apply to, it is worth considering the criteria and taking legal advice when making decisions about employees who express controversial views or beliefs at work.