An Employment Judge has ruled at a pre-hearing review that an employee could have a “philosophical belief in climate change” under the Religion and Belief Regulations Accordingly, his belief was legally recognised as having protection from discrimination (Nicholson v Grainger Plc, ET unreported).

Implications

This ruling is significant as it would appear to widen the protection of the Religion and Belief Regulations as it is believed to be the first case where an employee has successfully argued that a “philosophical belief” which is not similar to a religious belief should be protected under the Religion and Belief Regulations.

The Religion or Belief Regulations originally offered legal protection for a “religious belief or similar philosophical belief”. According to the Department of BERR, this would therefore not include any philosophical or political belief unless it was similar to a religious belief.

The word “similar” was removed from this definition by the Equality Act 2006, but the stated intention of Parliament was not to widen the ambit of protection under the Regulations and, prior to this decision, Tribunals had tended to interpret these provisions narrowly.

It should be noted though that this was a decision on a preliminary point of law (Grainger has confirmed that it will appeal this ruling), the Tribunal will still need to determine whether Mr Nicholson was in fact dismissed due to his philosophical belief. Further, it should be remembered this is only an Tribunal finding and is not binding on other Employment Tribunals although it may have some persuasive effect. The full Tribunal hearing was due to take place between 4 and 5 June 2009, but this has been postponed and we understand has not yet been re-listed.

Facts

Mr Nicholson was the former head of sustainability at Grainger plc, Britain’s largest residential property investment company, before being made redundant in June 2008. Mr Nicholson brought a claim under the Religion and Belief Regulations which alleged that he was dismissed because of his strong environmental convictions, which were at odds with the opinions of other executives within the company.

A pre-hearing review took place on a preliminary point of law to decide whether a belief in “climate change” could amount to a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Religion and Belief Regulations.

Mr Nicholson argued that his “belief” went further than an opinion and affected how he lived his life including that he no longer travelled by airplane, had eco-renovated his home and composted waste.

Mr Nicholson also gave evidence that:

  • although Grainger had good written policies both on the environment and corporate social responsibility, there was a “mismatch” between the policies and the way in which the firm was managed, for example many of the staff drove cars with high carbon emissions;
  • although he was tasked with establishing a carbon management strategy for the company, when he sought information to seek to establish the firm’s carbon footprint this was refused; and
  • he had raised with the chief executive the fact that there were no controls on how many flights staff took and did not receive a direct reply to this email. Another colleague later informed him there would be no change on this.

Grainger had sought to get Mr Nicholson’s claim struck out and their Counsel contended that Mr Nicholson’s views on climate change and the environment were based on fact and science, and did not constitute a philosophical belief. However, the Judge found in favour of Mr Nicholson.

Grainger has confirmed that it will appeal against the Judge’s decision made at the pre-hearing review that Mr Nicholson’s belief was a philosophical belief.

The full hearing of Mr Nicholson's claim was due to take place in early June, but this has been postponed and we understand has not been re-listed as yet.