Associate solicitor Rhiannon John looks at how a landmark tribunal could change the way cases are heard under The Equality Act 2010 and asks what it could mean for employers.
When the UK Parliament introduced The Equality Act 2010, it was originally designed to bring together various acts and regulations protecting against discrimination in the workplace, into one piece of legislation. In its simplest form, the Act protects employees and workers from discrimination based on one of nine ‘protected characteristics’, namely: age, disability, religion or belief, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, sex, race and sexual orientation.
As case law has developed, so has the interpretation of what should constitute a protected characteristic under the Act, and this is particularly evident in the area of religion or belief. Under the Act, ‘belief’ refers to any religious or philosophical belief and, in 2009, both climate change and anti-fox hunting were held to be capable of constituting philosophical beliefs and therefore deserving of protection under the Act.
It is ironic, therefore, that the recent news about an Employment Tribunal claim being made against The League of Cruel Sports (a body that has recently fought to protect the UK’s ban on fox-hunting), has started a conversation about whether a new philosophical belief should be added to the list of protected characteristics – that of Veganism.
Although his former employer denies that Jordi Casamitjana’s dismissal was in any way connected to veganism, the claimant maintains that he was discriminated against because of his beliefs after disclosing that some of the firm’s pension funds were invested in businesses involved in animal testing. The claim is due to be heard in March 2019 and is likely to be a landmark case.
Interestingly, the issue of veganism being a philosophical belief was anticipated by the Equality & Human Rights Commission when it produced an early draft of its Code of Practice, concluding that vegans were “likely to hold a belief which is covered by the Act." This was seen as controversial and received press attention at the time, which may explain why it didn’t make it into the final version of the EHRC’s Code of Practice. The government declared it did not share the EHRC’s view, but it now looks like this will be a matter for the courts to decide.
In order to demonstrate that veganism qualifies for protection as a ‘philosophical belief’ under the Act, Mr Casamitjana will have to demonstrate that his belief is genuinely held, and not merely an opinion or viewpoint. Amongst other things, he will also need to successfully argue that veganism is ‘a substantial aspect of human life and behaviour that is worthy of respect in a democratic society, with similar status to a religious belief’.
Taking everything into account, it seems that the judgment of the tribunal next year could conceivably result in the extension of the protection offered to employees under The Equality Act to veganism. Although this shouldn’t cause employers up and down the country to break out in a cold sweat about what this could possibly mean for them, we would advise businesses to take note of the judgement and ensure they are fully prepared for a revised interpretation.
Initially, this means updating their HR teams, managers and those responsible for training staff on equality and diversity, on issues surrounding veganism and individuals that hold vegan beliefs. Some employers may want to update staff handbooks and review existing training programmes.
Whether or not, come March 2019, we will see a flurry of employers rushing to introduce vegan menus in staff canteens, or supplying vegan milk substitutes for the communal hot drinks round, remains to be seen.