Food for Thought - 'Ethical vegan' gains legal protection


08 April 2020

With the turn of the decade, the Employment Tribunal took on a new form of ‘veganuary’ and delivered what we believe to be the first ruling on ethical veganism.

Mr J Casamitjana Costa v The League Against Cruel Sports 3331129/2018

Mr Casamitjana claims that his dismissal from the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) was discriminatory because he is an ethical vegan - he is a keen campaigner against all forms of animal exploitation going far beyond his dietary choices. LACS argue that he was dismissed for gross misconduct, having disclosed that LACS invested pension funds in firms involved in animal testing.

Mr Casamitjana did not have sufficient continuity of service (two years) to bring a straightforward unfair dismissal claim. Before the employment tribunal could rule on the reasons behind the dismissal, they had to decide whether his status as an ethical vegan ought to be protected as a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010. If so, it would mean that his ethical veganism qualified for the level of protection similar to that granted to other protected characteristics, such as disability or age.

What was the tribunal’s decision?

Whilst the judgment has not yet been published, it has been reported that Judge Postle was “overwhelmingly satisfied” that Mr Casamitjana’s ethical veganism constituted a philosophical belief. The applicable legal tests are that the belief (1) was genuinely held, (2) was in respect of a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour, (3) had a level of cogency, seriousness and importance akin to a religious belief, (4) was worthy of respect in a democratic society, and (5) was not incompatible with human dignity.

This ruling concerned Mr Casamitjana’s own belief system, and does not automatically mean that all vegans now qualify for special protection. The ruling also does not amount to a binding precedent, which would require an appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal or a higher court. This is unlikely, as LACS did not actually contest the point - they argue that Mr Casamitjana’s belief was irrelevant to his dismissal.

Practical implications

Whilst perhaps less significant than the headlines would suggest, this case is likely to raise concerns for some businesses that similar claims will be brought. Although the legal tests are fairly settled, the concept of ethical veganism as a protected characteristic in the workplace is novel and poses the question as to just how wide the net could (and should) be cast.

Businesses most likely to be concerned are those in the agricultural, food production/retail and catering industries, where employees are expected to process or handle any form of animal product. Whilst the wider practical effect of this ruling remains to be seen, a proper assessment of whether an individual’s belief would likely constitute a philosophical belief for legal purposes might be advisable. It does of course remain open to employers to show that decisions were made because of an unrelated business reason, which is what LACS will need to do at the substantive hearing.

This article is from the spring 2020 issue of Food for Thought, our newsletter for those working within the food and drink industries. For further information please contact a member of Birketts' Regulatory and Corporate Defence team. To download the latest issue, please visit the newsletter section of our website.

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at April 2020.