As the bells chimed for 2020, it brought with it something very rare indeed; a “first instance” Employment Tribunal claim began making news headlines throughout the UK. The reason reporting of such first instance cases is rare is simple; no court or tribunal in the UK is required to follow any judgment from the Employment Tribunal and it is generally only when a matter reaches the Employment Tribunal level that it is reported in the press. Owing, however to the huge public interest in the case, we will look behind the recent vegan judgment of Casamitjana v The League Against Cruel Sports and attempt to explain the ramifications for your business.
What is veganism?
As my colleague, Sarah, stated in her recent article, veganism is "…a 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; […] In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."
So what does veganism have to do with employment law?
Mr Casamitjana worked for the League Against Cruel Sports. He was dismissed from his role and he claimed that the reason for his dismissal was because he was vegan. There was however one issue. In the UK we have never had a Tribunal judgment confirming whether veganism was a “philosophical belief” worthy of protection. Examples of philosophical beliefs can be found in this article by my colleague Steve Conlay.
Mr Casamitjana describes himself as an “ethical vegan”. As you will see later in this article, the term ethical is important in this matter.
In September 2016, Mr Casamitjana began working with the League Against Cruel Sports, an animal welfare charity which campaigns against the use of animals in sports such as fox hunting or bullfighting. Upon joining, he was enrolled into their pension scheme. However, he later discovered that the pension fund was investing in companies who have been known to engage in animal testing, such as pharmaceutical or tobacco companies. Mr Casamitjana raised this as an issue to the organisation. However, when nothing changed, he wrote to his colleagues to state what he had discovered. Mr Casamitjana was subsequently dismissed. The League Against Cruel Sports is defending this case, stating that he was actually dismissed for gross misconduct for a separate matter.
Regardless of the reason, Mr Casamitjana alleges that his dismissal was discriminatory, because of a philosophical belief, namely veganism.
Prior to coming to a full judgment on whether Mr Casamitjana had been discriminated against for his philosophical belief, the Tribunal had to decide whether veganism is actually a philosophical belief. The Tribunal took the common step of listing the matter for a preliminary hearing in London to decide on the status of veganism. Mr Casamitjana’s entire case depended on a positive outcome at the preliminary hearing. If veganism was found not to be a philosophical belief, the rest of his case was unlikely to succeed.
In order to rule on whether veganism could amount to a philosophical belief, and to reiterate my previous article which can be accessed in the link below, the tribunal will consider the following:
- Is the belief genuinely held?
- Is it a belief, as opposed to an opinion or viewpoint?
- Does the belief concern a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour?
- Has the belief attained a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance?
- Is the belief worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity or in conflict with the fundamental rights of others?
- Does it have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief?
When considering Mr Casamitjana’s claims, the Tribunal found it necessary to distinguish between two forms of veganism:
ethical veganism: those who follow a truly vegan lifestyle by avoiding animal products not just in their diet, but also by avoiding clothing made from animal by-product (such as wool and leather), avoiding cosmetics and other products which may have been tested on animals, and avoiding activities and attractions which involve animals (such as orca and dolphin shows).
dietary veganism: those who exclude animal products from their diet only.
As per my article last year, I believed that veganism would pass the above tests. I am very pleased to say that I have now been proved correct. Notwithstanding that The League Against Cruel Sports did not oppose the point, the Employment Tribunal found that ethical veganism does meet the above tests and therefore will qualify as a philosophical belief. This judgment is in keeping with the obiter comments in Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited, which my colleague, Steve, commented on in October 2019. In this case the Tribunal stated that there was “clear cogency and cohesion in vegan belief” which was not present in vegetarianism.
Whilst an Employment Tribunal decision is not binding on other Courts or Tribunals, this is clear judiciary guidance that veganism is a belief worthy of protection, and so long as it is not merely dietary, then vegans will likely be protected from discrimination.
The judgment as to whether or not Mr Casamitjana was discriminated against because he was a vegan will now proceed to a final hearing which will likely be later in the year.
What does this mean for you or your business, and what should you be doing now?
As a whole, this case is a good reminder that employers should consider whether an employee’s actions (or omissions) are related to a belief they hold and consider whether it might meet the test of a philosophical belief. This is not always an easy judgment to make by line managers who are historically poor at handling such situations, putting employees complaints down to simply a bad or disruptive attitude whilst threatening disciplinary proceedings.
This case particularly has highlighted veganism as a protected characteristic and so employers should, where appropriate, look to make amendments to accommodate vegans. The most obvious change is to provide vegan options if the company is providing food. However, it should also consider other points such as uniforms or dress-codes which should avoid using or referring to wool or leather.
The bottom line is to be reasonable and considerate of other people’s beliefs in order to avoid any issues. Employers should ensure that managers are aware of discrimination owing to philosophical beliefs and where applicable, regular training should be given to those with such responsibilities.