Alex Radford, 8 September 2022
On the week of March 14th 2022 the Employment Tribunal heard the case of Ms S Free Miles v The Royal Veterinary College. The case is interesting as it touches on the question of what sort of protection proponents of ethical veganism can expect under the Equality Act 2010, if they are dismissed from their job due to their ethical commitments. Combined with an earlier 2020 case, J Casamitjana Costa v The League Against Cruel Sports, the tribunals judgement here indicates that courts are happy to view ethical veganism as a protected philosophical belief. However, they will draw a hard line with any philosophical belief that endorses breaking the law.
Shakira Free Miles, the claimant, was a veterinary nurse who believed that non-human animals both have innate value, and that they should not be used for food, sport or experimentation.
She was employed by the respondent, the Royal Veterinary College, with whom she had an agreement to live in a flat provided by the college.
Sometime after Ms S Free Miles started working an officer from Essex Police contacted a hospital director at the college, Anne Richings, and demanded personal data on Ms S Free Miles. They said they were investigating burglaries and thefts of non-human animals.
After contacting Anne Richings, the police then arrested Ms S Free Miles at the college’s flat and found an unwell turkey. Ms S Free Miles was subsequently released under investigation. She was later charged by the police with criminal conspiracy.
Shortly after being arrested Ms S Free Miles was investigated by the college for possible gross misconduct. Ultimately the college upheld four allegations against her, and dismissed her from their employment.
1. She breached a no pets policy the college had for its residential accommodation. This was misconduct but not gross misconduct.
2. She breached her accommodation agreement. Again, this was misconduct not gross misconduct.
3. She breached the colleges social media policy by posting pictures of animals there were being treated at the college without the consent of the owners. This did amount to gross misconduct.
4. She brought the nursing profession into disrepute by trespassing and removing animals from private property, as well as for being part of and promoting an animal activist group called “Meat the Victims” which did endorse breaking the law. This also amounted to gross misconduct.
This led her to approach the employment tribunal and claim she had been dismissed unlawfully.
One of the claims she made was that she suffered direct and indirect philosophical belief discrimination.
Ms S Free Miles challenged the Royal Veterinary College on the following grounds:
1) She was unfairly dismissed because the process the college followed was not fair, for example her counsel alleged a key reason for her dismissal was not communicated to her.
2) The college directly or indirectly discriminated against her protected philosophical beliefs. She believed that non-human animals have innate value and should not be exploited, and that she and others had a positive duty to act to prevent this exploitation, including trespassing and removing suffering animals.
She argued this belief should be counted as a protected philosophical belief under Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits discrimiantion against such beliefs. As the college dismissed her for holding this belief, or more generally had a policy of dismissing anyone else who held that protected philosophical belief, they had discriminated against her.
In judging this claim the tribunal had to determine whether her beliefs could count as a philosophical belief, under The Equality Act 2010 Section 10.
The criteria for determining what counts as a philosophical belief however was set down by Grainger PLC & Others v Nicholson EKEAT/0219/09:
“(i) The belief must be genuinely held.
(ii) It must be a belief and not … an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
(iii) It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
(iv) It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
(v) 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 …”
The tribunal found Ms S Free Miles beliefs to fail on the last criterion: they were not worthy of respect in a democratic society.
The tribunal didn’t hold that all her beliefs were not worthy of respect. Her belief that non-human animals have innate value, and that they should not be used for food, sport or experimentation was deemed worth of respect. However, her beliefs extended further. She thought that she and others had a moral obligation to take positive steps to prevent non-human animal exploitation. This included breaking laws such as trespassing on private property. This the tribunal did not think was worthy of respect.
The court also held that the parts of her beliefs which are protected, e.g. the belief non-human animals should not be exploited, where not intimately linked to the actions she took. As such they didn’t count as a manifestation of her beliefs. And even if they were counted, the court held that it would have been proportionate for the college to dismiss her.
As a result, she had not been discriminated against due to her ethical veganism. As far as the court was concerned the college had supported her, due to the fact they provided a second fridge for her, which would not contain animal products and allowed her to speak publicly on animal issues. The reasons for dismissal resulted largely from the college’s concern about the potential loss to their reputation they believed Ms S Free Miles actions caused them.
The tribunal decided to dismiss Ms S Free Miles claim of indirect and direct philosophical belief discrimination.
First, it’s worth noting that employment tribunal decisions are not binding on other courts. It is always possible for a future court to diverge from this.
However, despite this limitation there are arguably two things worth noting:
The tribunal agreed with a previous employment tribunal judgement which held that ethical veganism in certain circumstances counts as a philosophical belief (Mr J Casamitjana Costa v The League Against Cruel Sports: 3331129/2018.
The panel took a view of any potential philosophical belief, not just ethical veganism, which endorsed any form of law breaking, regardless of whether the law broken is criminal or civil. The tribunal for example focused in large part on the accusations of trespass against her, which in general is a civil but not a criminal offence in the UK. In doing so they seem to take the view that no philosophical belief which endorsed civil disobedience could be protected under the Equality Act 2010.
Although the caselaw on ethical veganism is still far too nascent to draw firm conclusions on how future tribunals are likely to approach the issue, this case indicates that courts seem willing to consider ethical veganism worthy of protection. However, it also indicates that tribunals may draw a hard line when the form of ethical veganism believed in endorses civil disobedience.
This post is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. If you require legal advice on animal protection laws please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.