Conisbee v Crossley Farms and others
In this case, the employee (claimant) had been employed at Crossley Farms as a Waiter/Barman from April 2018 until he resigned on 30 August 2018 shortly after being called ‘gay’ because he was a vegetarian. The employee did not have qualifying service to claim ordinary unfair or constructive dismissal, instead the claim was for discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief.
This was a preliminary hearing which dealt with whether or not vegetarianism is capable of satisfying the requirements and definition of being a philosophical belief as protected under the Equality Act.
Both parties accepted that the claimant was a vegetarian and that the claimant had a genuinely held belief in his vegetarianism. What was argued was that simply being a vegetarian cannot in itself amount to a philosophical belief.
Points for the protection of vegetarianism as a philosophical belief
The tribunal were reminded that under the Equality Act 2010, a philosophical belief will amount to a protected characteristic if it satisfies the following criteria:
- The belief must be genuinely held and not a mere opinion or viewpoint on the present state of information available;
- The belief must be a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
- The belief must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and be worthy of respect in a democratic society; and
- The belief must be compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
With regards to the above criteria, the following points were then made to argue that vegetarianism is a philosophical belief and worthy of protection under the Equality Act:
- It was argued that the claimant, like many vegetarians, are genuine in their belief and that it would not be sensible to suggest that the belief system is made up or fanciful.
- It was argued that the belief is based on the premise that it is wrong and immoral to eat animals and to subject them and the environment to the perils of farming and slaughter. This is more than a mere opinion and is a serious belief integral to the way of life.
- It was accepted that in 2010, the amount of people practicing vegetarianism accounted for 21.8% of the world’s population. Vegetarianism is therefore a substantial aspect of human life, which attains a high level of cogency, seriousness and importance and is certainly worthy of respect in a democratic society.
- No one can sensibly argue that vegetarianism is incompatible with human dignity and does not conflict with other fundamental rights.
In addition to the above, various cases were referenced and it was pointed out that less conventional beliefs have been found to be protected, such as a belief in man-made climate change and a ruling by the European Court that the UK should provide protection for political beliefs, regardless of how shocking or disturbing they may be.
Points against the protection of vegetarianism as a philosophical belief
The following points were made to argue that vegetarianism is not a philosophical belief worthy of protection under the Equality Act.
- The Oxford English Dictionary defines vegetarianism as being “a person who does not eat meat or fish and sometimes other animal products especially for moral, religious or health reasons.” Therefore, it is accepted that vegetarianism is the practice of not eating meat or fish. Whereas a vegan is defined as “a person who does not eat or use animal products.” Therefore, it is accepted that veganism is the practice of abstaining from both the consumption and use of animal products.
The criteria for a philosophical belief were then reiterated again by the respondents, and although similar to the four criteria given above, some additional ones were cited. These were as follows:
- The belief must be genuinely held;
- It must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint;
- It must be a belief as to a weight in substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
- It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
- It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others;
- It must have a similar status or cogency to religious belief;
- It need not be shared by others;
- Whilst support of a political party does not in itself amount to a philosophical belief, a belief in a political philosophy or doctrine might qualify;
- A philosophical belief may be based on science.
It was argued that the employee’s vegetarianism failed to meet points 2, 3, 4 and 6. The reasons for this were as follows:
- Point 2 – The employee’s witness statement sets out his belief that “…animals should not be bred, caged or killed for the purposes of food” and that “I happen to believe that the environment would be a better place without slaughtering animals for food”. It was argued this is in fact an opinion and a viewpoint, not a belief.
- Point 3 – It was argued the belief is about preserving the life of animals and fish, not about human life and behaviour.
- Point 4 – The popularity of vegetarianism was not disputed, but the question is whether it has attained a cohesive, serious and important level. It was accepted that the beliefs held by each vegan is fundamentally the same, but there may be many reasons why someone is vegetarian. Such as: a respect for sentient life, moral concern about the raising and slaughter of animals, health / diet benefits, environmental concerns, economic benefit and / or personal taste. Therefore, as there are at least six different reasons for why one might be a vegetarian there is no cogency or cohesion in that belief.Furthermore, many people might practice vegetarianism at some stage in their life but not maintain the practice. In addition, for many the practice is neither serious nor important. This is important when considering whether an employer should be compelled to treat vegetarianism as a protected characteristic, since unlike most protected characteristics it is not possible for an employer to know with any certainty whether yesterday’s vegetarian is tomorrow no longer such, or vice versa.
- Point 6 – It was disputed whether vegetarianism itself has a cogency which is a similar level to a religious belief. It was said that the belief of many vegetarians is far less serious than the claimant’s. Plus, many vegetarians simply prefer to avoid meat and fish but choose not to go as far as practicing veganism. Vegetarianism is some way removed from veganism and could be argued to be a far less serious belief and for that reason it falls short of attaining the level of cogency or seriousness similar to a religious belief.
- It was also put to the tribunal that to protect people who have made (what Baroness Warsi called) a ‘lifestyle choice’ to be a vegetarian under the Equality Act 2010, would be a dangerous path to follow. Although the fact that animals should not be killed may be a belief, there are many different reasons why someone may be a vegetarian. It does not warrant the protection of the tribunal or equality laws.
The tribunal decision
It was accepted that the claimant is a vegetarian with a genuine belief in his vegetarianism. The question is whether vegetarianism is a philosophical belief which is capable of protection under the Equality Act.
The tribunal said “It is clear the Claimant’s belief in vegetarianism is his opinion and viewpoint in that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food. The Tribunal concluded that this does not seem to be a belief capable of protection. It is “simply not enough to have an opinion based on some real, or perceived, logic.”
It was accepted that vegetarianism is not about human life and behaviour, rather (as per the Claimant’s view) that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food. This was described as an ‘admirable sentiment’ but does not meet the required criteria set out above.
On the issue of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, the tribunal did not wish to set too high a bar. However, they accepted the view that there are many reasons that someone may become a vegetarian, unlike vegans whose reasoning is largely the same. Vegans do not accept the practice under any circumstances (eating meat, fish, dairy), have distinct concerns about the way animals are reared and a clear belief that killing and eating animals is contrary to a civilised society and also against climate control. There is clear cogency and cohesion in this, which appears contrary to the numerous and differing reasons for adopting vegetarianism.
It was said that a belief relating to an important aspect of human life or behaviour, is not in itself enough to have a similar status to a religious belief.
Therefore, on balance it was concluded that vegetarianism did not amount to a philosophical belief worthy of protection under the Equality Act 2010.
Learning points and HR guidance
Duty of care
As it currently stands, vegetarians amongst your workforce are unlikely to be able to claim that they have been discriminated against on this basis. However, employers should remember that they have a duty of care toward every employee and certainly, employees with qualifying service are able to bring claims in respect of fairness.
Veganism and unlawful discrimination
There was not a specific ruling here to say that veganism is protected as a philosophical belief. However, there is a strong inference that it would be protected and inferences such as this are never made lightly by tribunals. Vegans will be able to refer to this ruling to support a claim for discrimination on the grounds of belief, if they should suffer any less favourable treatment which amounts to unlawful discrimination, because of their veganism.
Therefore, employers should be aware that they are likely to have a duty to protect their vegan employees against unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation. They may also have vicarious liability for acts of their employees or third parties, if they unreasonably fail to protect their vegan employees against discrimination by these groups.
Updating HR policies
Employers may consider updating policies (such as diversity and inclusion or bullying and harassment) to include veganism. They may also consider treating any claims of misconduct against a person because of their actual or perceived veganism, as seriously as they may treat other discrimination issues linked to philosophical beliefs. Employers would be wise to ensure that their vegan members of staff are not prevented from practicing their veganism in the workplace unduly.
Get support, or further information, in relation to any HR related matter by contacting HR Solutions on telephone number 0844 324 5840 or visiting www.hrsolutions-uk.com/hr-services.