Include ‘ethical veganism’ in diversity policies, experts warn

Lawyers advise businesses to give veganism the same protection as other beliefs after tribunal rules it falls under discrimination laws

Employers should look to review their diversity policies to include ‘ethical veganism’, employment lawyers have said, after an employment tribunal (ET) ruled it is a philosophical belief that is protected by discrimination law.

The ruling came from the Norwich ET as part of a wider unfair dismissal case brought by Jordi Casamitjana (pictured), a former employee of animal rights charity the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), who claimed he was unfairly sacked after he raised concerns that its pension fund was invested in companies involved in animal testing.

Casamitjana argued that his ethical veganism – which covers his broader lifestyle rather than just diet – was an integral part of his life, and this therefore made his dismissal discriminatory.

The judgment does not settle Casamitjana’s unfair dismissal claim, but it does lay the ground for a substantive hearing into his case.

Experts said the ruling widened the scope of the Equality Act, and employers needed to take a close look at their existing policies to ensure ethical vegans were afforded the same protections as employees with other religious or philosophical beliefs.

While both dietary and ethical vegans eat a plant-based diet, excluding all animal-based foods or byproducts, ethical vegans exclude all forms of animal exploitation including avoiding clothing made from wool or leather, or toiletries from companies involved in animal testing.

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Victoria Albon, associate at Dentons, said it was not surprising the tribunal found ethical veganism was protected, and said the definition of a philosophical belief was “open to a fairly wide interpretation”, highlighting a tribunal ruling in 2009 that found belief in man-made climate change should be classed as a belief and protected under the Equality Act.

The Act says a philosophical belief must be genuinely held – not just an opinion or viewpoint. It must also be cogent, serious and apply to an important aspect of human life or behaviour. This belief must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not affect other people’s fundamental rights. 

Although it could still be appealed, the ruling provides useful commentary on the level of legal protection that ethical vegans should receive in the workplace. But Carl Atkinson, partner at law firm Gunnercooke, told People Management tribunal judges in similar cases have been careful to state in their judgment that a case will be fact specific to the individual involved.

“It has become apparent that the way tribunals will judge if the belief system of a particular claimant is covered by equality law will depend on the specifics of that case, meaning one vegan could have a set of views that fall within the definition a philosophical belief while another did not,” Atkinson explained. 

He said, in the present case, Casamitjana’s lawyers had published his witness statement online so it was apparent his veganism had become determinative of the way he lived his life. 

While all vegans might not be protected by the recent ruling, Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula, advised businesses to review how they supported ethical vegans in their company and if any changes were required. 

“It should be remembered that no employee should feel mistreated at work,” Palmer said. “Aside from the potential legal implications as seen here, catering for a diverse workforce can be critical in both attracting and retaining key talent.”

Casamitjana’s unfair dismissal case is still being heard by the tribunal. Slater and Gordon, the law firm representing Casamitjana, said further hearings into the case are planned for February.

Rhys Wyborn, employment partner at Shakespeare Martineau and who acted for the LACS, said the company did not contest the issue of whether ethical veganism itself should be a protected belief, but said it was “irrelevant” to the core reason behind Casamitjana’s dismissal. 

“The league is now looking ahead to the substantive hearing in this case and to addressing the reason for Casamitjana’s dismissal, which it maintains was down to his misconduct and not the belief he holds,” Wyborn said. 

Casamitjana said he was “extremely happy” with the current ruling and added that he hoped fellow vegans “would benefit” from the tribunal’s decision.