Given the widespread media coverage of the recent Employment Tribunal decision that ‘ethical veganism’ is a philosophical belief protected under the Equality Act 2010, it seems that a major change in the law has been implemented with potentially serious and expensive consequences for employers.
The ruling followed a case brought by Jordi Casamitjana who alleges he was unfairly dismissed by the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) because of his ethical veganism which opposes the use of animals by humans for any purpose. Mr. Casamitjana raised concerns that LASC’s pension fund invested in companies that tested on animals. LACS contend he was dismissed for gross misconduct.
The ruling held that Mr. Casamitjana’s belief in ethical veganism meets the required tests set out in the 2010 Act in that his belief – and not merely an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available - is genuinely held and is a belief in a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. Additionally, Mr. Casamitjana’s belief attains a certain level of seriousness and importance and is worthy of respect in a democratic society, and is compatible with human dignity and the fundamental rights of others.
However, it is important to remember that this is not a decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal, Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court. As a judgment of the first instance Employment Tribunal, it does not implement a change in the law as the ruling is not binding on other employment tribunals and indeed other employers.
Additionally, Mr. Casamitjana’s former employers did not dispute that his ethical veganism was a philosophical belief protected under the Equality Act. Another employer may successfully argue that the belief of an employee claiming to be an ethical vegan does not meet the relevant tests, especially given how potentially unique Mr. Casamitjana’s particular lifestyle is, reportedly refusing to sit on leather seats, travel short distances on public transport in case birds or insects are accidentally killed or even eat figs as they may contain the larvae of wasps. As always, each tribunal will decide each case on its own facts and merits. Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd in October 2019 held that vegetarianism is not a protected belief: a contrary finding would arguably have been more far-reaching for employers.
The Employment Tribunal will decide in February if Mr. Casamitjana was unfairly dismissed because of his beliefs or fairly dismissed for gross misconduct. Meantime, employers should, for example, ensure all employees are allowed vegan options in staff canteens and kitchens, and provide vegan alternatives for pre-ordered catering for business meetings. The soap used in staff toilets may even need to be reconsidered. Although the Casamitjana judgment is not binding, employers should be proactive as this area of law will very likely develop rapidly in the near future.