Dorothy the turkey, veganism and the Equality Act 2010

With reference to a recent case, Deborah Miller explores whether veganism is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

21st June 2022

The recent case of Free Miles v The Royal Veterinary College, featuring Dorothy the turkey, has some striking similarities to one of my early, and most memorable, employment tribunal cases. In this case, the claimant had “rescued” (we said stole) a duck (unnamed) from her employer because, she said, it was being bullied by the other ducks. That case was a long time ago, when discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief was a new concept. Perhaps for that reason it was never argued that the claimant’s actions, and her dismissal, had any connection with a philosophical belief she held.   

The prohibition of discrimination in employment on the grounds of religion and belief, now contained in the Equality Act 2010 (the “Equality Act”), first became unlawful in December 2003. Since then, numerous cases have illustrated the potentially wide scope of this protected characteristic. Examples of protected philosophical beliefs have included those relating to climate change; anti-fox hunting and anti-hare coursing; a belief in the “higher purpose” of public service broadcasting; a belief that “it is wrong to lie under any circumstances”; a belief that mediums can communicate with the dead; and a belief in nationalism or Scottish independence.   

Which philosophical beliefs are protected?

Determining whether or not a particular belief is protected under the Equality Act is not always easy. In the leading case of Grainger Plc v Nicholson, the Employment Appeal Tribunal set out the following characteristics of a protected philosophical belief:

  • The belief must be genuinely held.
  • It must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint 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.
  • It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Each of these elements must be present for a belief to be a protected philosophical belief. The belief need not be shared by others, but it must have similar status or cogency to a religious belief.

Can veganism be a protected philosophical belief?

As a former vegan, I find the developing case law on veganism of particular interest. I chose to be vegan for purely health reasons, and remain pescatarian for the same reasons. I am certain that neither of these dietary preferences would meet the Grainger test (above). In particular, for me, it is about a lifestyle choice, and not about a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.  However, the same may not be true of “ethical vegans”. Indeed, in the case of Casamitjana Costa v League Against Cruel Sports, the employment tribunal held that ethical veganism could amount to a protected philosophical belief.

Ethical veganism is a moral opposition to the exploitation of animals. Ethical vegans choose to live, as far as possible, without the use of animal products. It is not just about choices of diet but also about what a person wears, personal care products they use, their hobbies and their job.   

In Free Miles v The Royal Veterinary College the claimant was a veterinary nurse and an ethical vegan. In February 2019, she was arrested by police in connection with alleged burglaries by the Animal Liberation Front. The police found an unwell turkey, called Dorothy Webster, at her tied accommodation, which she said she had rescued and was keeping in breach of her employer’s “no pets” policy. Following her arrest, Ms. Miles was summarily dismissed by her employer. The reasons for the dismissal included the claimant’s association with extreme animal rights groups and alleged involvement in illegal activities (trespass and theft of animals, including Dorothy). The respondent, her employer, took the view that these activities could bring it into disrepute.   

The Tribunal concluded that the claimant’s veganism beliefs included a belief that taking action, including illegal action, such as trespass and theft, to reduce the suffering of animals was necessary. This did not meet the Grainger test because a belief in law-breaking was not worthy of respect in a democratic society. It was not, therefore, a protected philosophical belief. However, if the claimant’s belief in ethical veganism had been limited to the belief that humans should not eat, wear, use for sport, experiment on, or profit from animals, then the tribunal said it would have amounted to a protected philosophical belief in the claimant’s case.

Conclusion

The facts of the Free Miles case were unusual. It was the belief in engaging in criminal activity, not ethical veganism itself, which meant the belief was not a protected philosophical belief. Although the claimant in this case was not successful, and the case is not binding on other employment tribunals, it does lend support to the growing number of cases supporting the proposition that, in the right circumstances, ethical veganism can be a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.