There are amongst us those who believe that certain events are actually part of a larger conspiracy, see for example, JFK's assassination, allegations that the moon landings were fake and Michael Jackson did not die - he just became LaToya Jackson full-time. For the most part, such beliefs do not really cause any issues - unless of course they are actually true! However, what happens if, for example, a senior police intelligence analyst fervently believes that recent terrorist attacks are actually part of a global conspiracy? The case of Farrell v South Yorkshire Police Authority looked at whether this could amount to a "philosophical belief" under discrimination law.

Mr Farrell was employed as principal intelligence analyst by South Yorkshire Police Authority. One of his tasks was to produce a "strategic threat assessment" covering various matters including terrorism. When he submitted this, he - perhaps unwisely - attached a document explaining that he held views running "contrary to the UK government's rhetoric on the events such as 9/11 and 7/7". These were that 9/11 and 7/7 were "false flag operations" authorised by the US and UK governments to help persuade their populations to support foreign wars. He stated that the police's approach to counter-terrorism was an "utter sham". He also believed that the media was controlled by a global elite (the Murdochs perhaps?) intent on bringing about a new world order.

Not altogether unsurprisingly, the Police dismissed Farrell, deciding that these views were incompatible with his contract and precluded him from performing his role. In response, Farrell brought employment tribunal claims, including one for religion or belief discrimination.

At a pre-hearing review, an employment judge concluded that these beliefs were not "philosophical beliefs" capable of protection under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. In the recent case of Grainger v Nicholson, the court had set out the requirements for a "philosophical belief", which were followed in the present case. Farrell could meet most of the Grainger requirements, in that:

  • his views were genuinely held;
  • he held settled "beliefs" rather than merely "opinions";
  • the beliefs related to weighty and substantial aspects of human life;
  • the beliefs were not incompatible with human dignity, and were deserving of respect in a democratic society.

However he fell down on one aspect of the requirements: the judge held that his beliefs "completely failed to meet even a bare minimum standard of coherence and cohesion". In fact, they were "absurd".

Interestingly, the judge felt that when the beliefs in question concerned a matter upon which external evidence was available, the court must consider the feasibility of those beliefs in the light of the evidence. This contrasted with religious beliefs, which concern the unknowable and unprovable.

The finding suggests that a better thought-out conspiracy theory could come within the remit of discrimination legislation (now the Equality Act 2010). Whilst this case is no doubt extreme, it does suggest that this is a potential growth area for claims where employees look to add another line of attack to the more traditional unfair dismissal claims. We will of course keep you updated on any future developments. In the meantime, if you really, really believe that Elvis lives - start compiling your scrapbook!