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Commercial Question

Vegetarian and vegan rights

updated on 23 June 2020


What legal rights do vegetarians and vegans have?


A recent Employment Tribunal decision concluded that veganism has the same status as any other "belief" under the Equality Act 2010. This provides vegans with enhanced protection under the law, as it is unlawful to discriminate against vegans.

The act does not go as far to cover vegetarians, whose decision to refrain from eating meat and fish does not go far enough to constitute a "belief" under the Act.

What is the difference between veganism and vegetarianism?

Vegetarians do not consume meat or fish, whereas vegans, in addition to not consuming meat or fish, do not consume any animal by-products. Further, they do not eat any dairy products or other animal by-products such as honey, nor do they wear or use leather. The true meaning of veganism, which dates back to the 1940s, is to live by the belief that it is wrong to exploit and kill living beings. Ethical veganism is not just about the choice of diet and clothing, but extends to shopping ethically, only purchasing vegan care and hygiene products that have not been tested on animals, and even the hobbies and jobs that vegans partake in.

The Vegan Society defines veganism as “a philosophy and way of life which seeks to exclude — as far as possible and practical — all forms of exploitation and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

Vegetarianism - Mr G Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited

Mr Conisbee worked as a waiter at a hotel in Suffolk and resigned when he was disciplined in front of customers for not wearing an ironed shirt. He brought a claim for discrimination, alleging that he suffered discriminatory treatment because he is a vegetarian.

In order to succeed in his claim, he had to prove that vegetarianism was a protected characteristic. Section 4 of the Act lists a set of "protected characteristics". The Act provides a worker or job applicant who possesses one or more of these protected characteristics with an extra layer of protection, as it makes it unlawful to discriminate against them because of one of those characteristics. One of the protected characteristics under section 4 is belief, defined in section 10 as "any religious or philosophical belief".

Section 10 of the Act reflects Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which, in part, states that "everyone has the right to freedom of thoughts, conscience and religion" and that "freedom to manifest one's religion or belief shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law". 

In order to determine whether a belief is a philosophical belief, the Tribunal had to consider, among other things, paragraph 2.59 of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Code of Practice on Employment 2011 where it states that to protect a philosophical belief under the Act:

  • it must be genuinely held;
  • it must be a belief and not an opinion or view point based on the present state of information available;
  • it must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • it must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
  • it must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

The tribunal thus had to determine whether ethical vegetarianism was capable of constituting a philosophical belief and whether the claimant genuinely held that belief.

The tribunal concluded that Connisbee's vegetarian belief was genuinely held and was worthy of respect in a democratic society. However, the belief did not meet the other elements of paragraph 2.59 as set out above. They concluded that vegetarianism did not concern a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour whatsoever, as vegetarianism was simply a lifestyle choice.

In this particular instance, Connisbee had made the decision to be vegetarian, as he believed that the world would be a better place if we did not kill animals for food. The tribunal concluded that vegetarianism did not have a similar status to a religious belief. It ultimately determined that vegetarianism did not attract the same status as other beliefs under the Act and thus was not a protected characteristic. Consequently, Connisbee could not successfully claim for discrimination.

In giving its decision, the tribunal distinguished vegetarianism and veganism, stating that a belief in veganism is more cogent and stronger than a belief in vegetarianism. This arguably paved the way for the decision in Jordi Casamitjana v League against Cruel Sports.

Veganism - Jordi Casamitjana v League against Cruel Sports

In this case, the claimant claimed his employer, the animal welfare charity the League against Cruel Sports, had unfairly dismissed him after he raised concerns with colleagues that the charity’s pension fund invested in companies involved in animal testing.

Mr Casamitjana drew his managers' attention to the pension fund investments but when he felt that his manager took no appropriate action, he told his colleagues about the investments. Casamitjana's employer subsequently disciplined and dismissed him for gross misconduct. Casamitjana thus claimed that the reason for his dismissal constituted an act of discrimination based on his philosophical belief of ethical veganism.

The tribunal again considered paragraph 2.59 when coming to its conclusion. It concluded that the belief of veganism is a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour, with significant consequences on that behaviour. Veganism permeates all aspects of that person's life, from the food they eat, to the clothes they wear, so it holds a high level of cogency, cohesion and importance to the individual.  In this particular case, it even affects the relationships held, as Casamitjana said that he would not date or live with a non-vegan. Thus, the tribunal ruled that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief and accordingly, a protected characteristic under the Act.

There is no formal decision regarding the unfair dismissal, as the parties settled the matter in advance of the hearing. In a statement, the League against Cruel Sports stated that "having revisited the issue, we now accept that Casamitjana did nothing wrong with such communication".

Zena Al-Kassab is a trainee solicitor at DWF.