An employment tribunal has recently decided that a veterinary nurse’s vegan beliefs did not qualify for protection under the Equality Act, principally because she believed she had a moral obligation to break the law to relieve animal suffering. This decision (in which Mills & Reeve represented the employer) contrasts with earlier rulings (see for example here) in which the Employment Appeal Tribunal has said that the “bar should not be set too high” for philosophical beliefs to qualify for protection.
Ms Free Miles worked as a Veterinary Nurse at the Royal Veterinary College’s veterinary hospital and was an ethical vegan. She defined this as a belief that animals’ lives have innate value, that humans should not eat, wear, use for sport, experiment on or profit from animals and that humans have a moral obligation to take positive action to reduce or prevent the suffering of animals. Ms Miles said in evidence that this included trespassing on private land and disobeying unjust laws if it was done to expose animal suffering.
Ms Free Miles was arrested as part of a police investigation into burglaries and thefts at farms and private residences believed to have been conducted by suspected splinter cell of the Animal Liberation Front.
The College dismissed Ms Free Miles because it believed that some of her conduct amounted to gross misconduct. In particular, the belief that she had breached the College’s Social Media policy including posting photos and videos of the hospital’s animal patients without records of owner consent, potential association with extreme animal rights groups and involvement in illegal activity with the associated risk of damage to the College’s reputation and partnerships.
A philosophical belief
The leading EAT decision on this issue (Grainger v Nicholson) held that a philosophical belief needs to:
(i) be genuinely held.
(ii) not be an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
(iii) be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
(iv) attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
(v) be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
The Tribunal considered whether Ms Free Miles’ belief, as defined by her, and the manifestation of that belief were protected in accordance with section 10 of the Equality Act 2010.
The Tribunal concluded that had the belief been limited to the belief that humans should not eat, wear, use for sport, experiment on or profit from animals, it would have satisfied the Grainger test. It may have also reached this conclusion if it included a moral obligation to take positive lawful action e.g. protests but it could not reach this conclusion if it included trespassing on private property of others and removing their property or acting in contravention of the law.
Importantly, it found that “a belief to take actions that are unlawful (either contrary to civil or criminal law) and to interfere with the property rights of others does not satisfy the fifth element of the Grainger test…it is not open to individuals to decide which laws are worthy of respect and which are unjust and can be disobeyed”.
With regard to the manifestation of that belief, it went onto conclude that “not every act is in some way inspired, motivated or influenced by the belief constitutes a ‘manifestation’ of the belief. The acts must be intimately linked with the belief and there was not a sufficiently close and direct nexus between the actions and the underlying belief”. In any event, if it had found it was a manifestation of the belief, it concluded that it would have been an objectionable and inappropriate manifestation and that would be the reason for the dismissal.
The Tribunal concluded that the College had not dismissed Ms Free Miles because of her belief in ethical veganism but because of her actions, as outlined above.
This and other recent belief cases have highlighted how difficult this area is for employers, particularly because of the use of social media by employees. This case is a reminder of the criteria for a belief being a philosophical belief within the Equality Act 2010 and when a manifestation of a belief may or may not be protected. First instance Tribunal decisions are not legally binding and this decision may yet be appealed by Ms Free Miles.
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