11 November 2009

Environmentalism is capable of being a philosophical belief

In Grainger Plc and Ors v Nicholson, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) held that Mr Nicholson’s belief that carbon emissions must be cut to avoid catastrophic climate change was capable of being a philosophical belief protected by discrimination law (the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 (‘the Regulations’)). However such a belief must be genuinely held and of a similar cogency or status to a religious belief. The EAT decided that there was no need to place any additional limitations on the nature or source of the belief.

Grainger plc claimed that Mr Nicholson’s employment was terminated on grounds of redundancy; Mr Nicholson claimed that his dismissal was unfair and that he was discriminated against contrary to the Regulations because of the environmentalist beliefs he had asserted. He said these did not simply form an opinion but amounted to a philosophical belief that affected how he lived his life including his choice of home, how he travelled, what he bought, ate and drank and what he did with his waste. He claimed that Grainger’s Chief Executive showed contempt for his concerns.

The EAT agreed with the Tribunal’s finding that Mr Nicholson’s beliefs led to him adopting a code of conduct with some similarities to those adopted in some of the major world religions, for example, avoiding certain types of meat or promoting sexual abstinence. It rejected Grainger Plc’s argument that particular limits should be placed upon what could amount to a philosophical belief protected by law. Instead, it set out the following guidelines:

  • The belief must be genuinely held.
  • It must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on information currently 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, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
  • Although the word ‘similar’ no longer appears in the Regulations, it is necessary, in order for the belief to be protected, for it to have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief.
  • The belief does not have to be one shared by others.
  • It could be a belief that does not govern the entirety of a person’s life, such as pacifism or vegetarianism. Therefore, the philosophical belief does not need to be ‘a fully fledged system of thought’.
  • A philosophical belief which is based on science, as opposed to, for example, religion, will not be disqualified from protection under the Regulations.

In light of this, a belief based on political philosophy could also qualify as a genuinely held philosophical belief. However the requirement that the belief must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not incompatible with human dignity should ensure that objectionable political philosophies such as racism or homophobia would not be protected.

This is an interesting judgment that gives some useful practical guidance on the kinds of strongly held belief that will qualify for legal protection at work. The case may also mean that beliefs arising out of concerns for the environment could have far-reaching effects in the workplace. With more and more employees taking up the challenge of tackling climate change, employers are advised to ensure that, at best, their corporate social responsibility policies illustrate support for this, and at the very least that the workplace and its culture do not show contempt for green concerns.

Category: Article