Should veganism be protected against discrimination?

You may have seen the story in the news at the end of last year involving the case of Mr Casamitjana (Mr C). Mr C was dismissed from work and is raising a claim for unfair dismissal on the grounds of discrimination due to his veganism. His case is due to be heard in the employment tribunal this year.

This is a very new case of this kind but with the growing numbers of people identifying as vegan in Britain, it could be a crucial case for many.

We will explain below what has happened in Mr C’s case and also the legal questions surrounding the debate.

What is a vegan?

Firstly, to clarify, it may be useful to define what a vegan is. A vegan is a person who will not eat or use any animal products. The Vegan Society define veganism as, “a way of life which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals or food, clothing or any other purpose.” People choose to convert to a vegan way of life for many reasons; health and ethics being the main ones. It also includes following a plant-based diet excluding all animal foods such as meat, fish, dairy and honey.

The background

Mr C worked for the League Against Cruel Sports as a zoologist specialising in animal behaviour and defines himself as an “ethical vegan” meaning he is vegan predominantly for ethical reasons. Mr C claims that he found out that his employers were investing pension funds in companies that carry out testing on animals. He believes drawing this to the attention of his managers was the real reason for his dismissal.

The League Against Cruel Sports claim Mr C was in fact dismissed for gross misconduct in failing to follow management instructions and reject any links between his veganism and his dismissal. They have said, “it is said that one of our former employees, who is passionate about protecting animals, is now trying to bring into disrepute a charity which is not only one of the most important pro-animal voices in this country, but also no doubt one of the most vegan-friendly employers.” They claim that Mr C is using veganism as he does not have the necessary two years’ employment service to bring an ordinary unfair dismissal claim.

Note, there is no minimum length of service requirement to bring a discrimination claim.

The legal debate

There are nine categories of individual protected by the Equality Act 2010 against discrimination. They are known as “protected characteristics” and are as follows –

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion or belief
  • Marriage/civil partnership

It is the last characteristic, “religion or belief”, that Mr C is relying on. He is claiming that veganism should be categorised as a belief and therefore protected against any forms of discrimination. To qualify as a belief, veganism must:

  • Be genuinely held;
  • Be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • Attain a certain level of cognancy, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  • Be worthy of respect in a democratic society;
  • Not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others;
  • Be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission draft Code of Practice refers to vegans by way of example. It states, “a person who is a vegan…that person eschews the exploitation of animals…and does so out of ethical commitment to animal welfare. This person is likely to hold a belief which is covered by the Act.” However, this was not included in the final version of the Code of Practice as the Equality Office decided it was a matter for the courts to decide.

This question of the protection for veganism has not yet been addressed in the courts and so this case could be a landmark ruling.

Similarly, a tribunal held in 2009 in the case of, Harsman v Milton Park (Dorset) Ltd, that a belief in the sanctity of life, extending to a fervent anti-fox hunting and anti-hare coursing belief, constituted a philosophical belief. The tribunal stressed that the decision was very much based on the facts of the case and did not mean that all opponents of fox hunting necessarily held a philosophical belief for these purposes. It is possible a similar stance may be taken by the tribunal in this case.

The veganism case had been scheduled for a two-day preliminary hearing in March to first assess whether ethical veganism is a protected philosophical belief. It is common to have these preliminary hearings before the full tribunal to clarify any areas of dispute before moving on. However, the League Against Cruel Sports changed their minds and conceded this element of the claim altogether.

A preliminary hearing was still scheduled for other parts of the claim and to both parties’ surprise on the day of this hearing on 14 March, the employment judge decided that the status of ethical veganism should still be determined by the tribunal. This preliminary hearing will now take place in October 2019 and should decide whether ethical veganism is a protected belief or not.

Conclusion

According to the Vegan Society, numbers of vegans in the UK have risen from 150,000 in 2014 to 600,000 in 2018. If veganism is decided to be included within the protected characteristic of “religion or belief”, those people identifying as vegans (or specifically ethical vegans if this distinction is made by the tribunal) would be protected against all forms of direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation in the workplace.

The difficulty before the courts may be the distinction between a vegan and an ethical vegan.

Once the status of ethical veganism has been established, a 10 day hearing is to take place in February 2020 to answer whether Mr C was unfairly dismissed because of his protected characteristic, along with determining the whistleblowing and discrimination elements of his claim.