Vegan decision shows how law is evolving with society
Switch on any news channel and it is likely you will be presented with some mention of the climate crisis. One of the key trends emerging out of this discussion is people choosing more plant-based food with vegan diets in particular attracting attention.
With around 600,000 reported adherents in the UK alone, the vegan lifestyle is undeniably on the rise, fuelled by growing concerns over the morality, sustainability and health implications of our level of meat consumption.
For 'ethical vegans', veganism is about more than just cutting out meat. It is a holistic belief system which fundamentally informs their everyday decisions, from the clothes they wear to the products they use or how they travel.
But why was it at the centre of a claim at an Employment Tribunal?
The claimant in this case, Jordi Casamitjani, is an 'ethical vegan' who was head of policy and research at the League Against Cruel Sports until his dismissal in April 2018.
Mr Casamitjani discovered that the charity's pension funds were invested in companies which carry out animal testing and raised his concerns with management before sharing them with his colleagues. He was subsequently found to have attempted to influence his colleagues' pension choices and dismissed for gross misconduct.
Mr Casamitjani, on the other hand, claims that he has been unfairly dismissed and discriminated against on the grounds of his ethical veganism.
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The tribunal, sitting in Norwich, was asked to consider whether ethical veganism constitutes a 'philosophical belief' and is therefore protected from unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act.
In what might already be one of the landmark rulings of 2020, Judge Robin Postle agreed that not only does Mr Casamitjani have a genuinely held belief in ethical veganism, but that the belief itself does fall under the protection of the Equality Act.
This ruling will be of great encouragement to vegans because in reaching his decision the judge has agreed that ethical veganism qualifies as a philosophical belief. This means that it has been found to be a cogent, serious belief which is more than a mere opinion, concerning an important aspect of human life or behaviour, worthy of respect in a democratic society and which does not infringe other people's fundamental rights.
After the hearing, Mr Casamitjani commented that the ruling proves that ethical veganism is "no less important than any other religion or any other belief".
An important contrast can be drawn with the recent case of Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited, in which an employment tribunal found that vegetarianism did not qualify as a philosophical belief. This suggests that the overarching, holistic nature of ethical veganism was crucial to the judge's decision in Mr Casamitjani's case. This distinction may indicate that a lifestyle choice which does not have the gravity of a philosophical belief will not qualify for legal protection.
Most importantly, this ruling demonstrates the potential for the law to evolve alongside emerging societal concerns. It could lead to an increase in claims for recognition of other growing beliefs, including those concerning climate change. Of course, the Equality Act does not extend to this jurisdiction and this decision is not binding legal authority in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, it is likely this ruling would be taken into account by our courts and tribunals and would not be incompatible with the equivalent Northern Irish statute.
Having dealt with the question as a preliminary point the tribunal will now consider whether Mr Casamitjani was unfairly dismissed on the grounds of his philosophical belief. Employers and their legal advisers will be watching for the full judgement with interest.
Jack Balmer is associate solicitor in the employment team at Tughans in Belfast. Contact Jack.Balmer@Tughans.com or connect with him via LinkedIn