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January is a time for resolutions and fresh starts. The Veganuary campaign encourages people to join the rising number of full time vegans in a month-long pledge to ditch the meat and follow a plant-based diet.  Turning vegan has been a popular choice for those on the path to self-improvement at the start of this new decade with healthier lifestyles, reduction of animal suffering and saving the planet from harmful meat-production pollutants being quoted as the main reasons for this resolution of choice. 

Veganism is a fast growing trend with a reported 350,000 people singing up to Veganuary in the UK in 2020, up from just 3,000 participants in 2014.  Despite these statistics, a 2019 survey found that almost half of vegans felt that they had been discriminated against or harassed at work because of their veganism. 

The Equality Act 2010 (“Act”)

The Equality Act 2010 (“Act”) is designed to protect employees and workers from unfair treatment and discrimination in respect of certain protected characteristics. One such characteristic is a person’s religion or belief. In addition to religious or other beliefs this category also extents to protect philosophical beliefs which can be broad and far-reaching in nature.  Some examples of what has been argued to constitute a philosophical belief include pacifism, anthropogenic climate change, the total abstinence from alcohol, humanism or even the sanctity of copyright law.    

In order to for a philosophical belief to be protected by the Act, the following must be demonstrated:

  • the belief must be genuinely held;
  • the belief is one as to a weighty and 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, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with fundamental rights of others; and
  • it must be a belief (and not an opinion or view point based on the present state of information available).

In the recent case of Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports it was decided that Mr Casamitjana’s veganism is an ethical belief, protectable by the Act. 

People may decide to practise a vegan lifestyle for many reasons ranging from health benefits to animal welfare to saving the planet. However, an important and distinguishable feature of Mr Casamitjana’s case is that he is recognised as an ethical vegan, meaning he opposes human exploitation of animals for any purpose whatsoever and his entire lifestyle choices are dictated by such beliefs.  Mr Casamitjana expressed the solemn nature of his beliefs to the tribunal and says he walks rather than use a bus so that it reduces the chance of killing birds or bugs that could be hit by vehicles.

In delivering its reasoning the tribunal sought to distinguish the strength and cohesion of a belief in veganism, with the judgment stating that veganism is more likely to be considered a philosophical belief as “…the belief held by each vegan is fundamentally the same” whereas “there are many reasons for why one might be a vegetarian”.

Things have changed but they are still the same

This is the first case where ethical veganism has been considered to be a protected characteristic under the Act.  However, Mr Casamitjana’s case is a first instance tribunal and therefore the decision is not binding and could be decided differently by other tribunals.  The take-home point is that employment law has not been changed by this decision.

It must also be remembered that Mr Casamitjana’s case and the decision that has followed is based on a very specific set of facts, with roots in a lifestyle built around his belief in ethical veganism.  It is not thought that this decision will extend to protect those who simply follow a vegan diet for health reasons, for example.  It can only be said that this case has demonstrated ethical veganism could be a protected characteristic but it will depend on the nature of the case. 

Whilst the law has not changed, the treatment of ethical veganism has and employers should consider what steps can be taken to protect their employees who may hold similar beliefs. 

For more information relating to the above please contact the Employment Law team at Lyons Davidson 0117 904 6000 (Bristol), 0113 368 6161 (Leeds)