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Employment Law Case Update: Is Stoicism a philosophical belief?

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It's important for all employers to be aware of the 9 protected characteristics under teh Equality Act 2010; one of which being religion or belief.  Our Employment Law team today review the unprecedented case of Mr S Jackson v Lidl Great Britain Ltd, which considers philosophical beliefs in the workplace, when a belief will be protected under the Act and whether Stoicism could be classed as a philosophical belief.

Mr Jackson was a communications worker for supermarket chain Lidl. He had been dismissed for saying “Asians were greasy” and then failing to “apologise sufficiently.” Mr Jackson subsequently launched an Employment Tribunal (ET) claim against Lidl alleging direct and indirect discrimination because of religion or belief.

Mr Jackson stated that, as a Stoic, he believes the ethics of a person’s actions depend not on their consequences but on their adherence to objective values. He told the ET “the realisation that the consequence of what I say would cause offence would not stop me from saying it.”.

The ET held a preliminary hearing to determine whether Mr Jackson’s Stoicism qualified as a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act. The ET began by reviewing the criteria for a philosophical belief as stated in Grainger plc and ors v Nicholson. As explained in that case, a belief will qualify for protection under the Equality Act if it:

a)   is genuinely held;
b)   is not simply an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
c)   concerns a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
d)   attains a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
e)   is worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not in conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

The ET had little trouble finding that Stoicism met the first four of these requirements. The ET accepted that Mr Jackson was sincere in his beliefs and that they guided his daily actions. It found that Stoicism is one school of thought that attempts to answer our “profound questions” and that Mr Jackson’s goal of achieving “a state of equanimity” indicated cohesion in his beliefs. 

The ET had some concern regarding the compatibility of Mr Jackson’s Stoicism with human dignity and the fundamental rights of others. While acknowledging that the remarks of Mr Jackson may cause offence, the ET ultimately reasoned that “there is no fundamental right not to be offended”.  Thus, the fact that Mr Jackson may not have considered whether his actions would cause offence did not exclude his Stoicism from legal protection.

The ET concluded that Mr Jackson’s Stoicism came within the definition of a philosophical belief under the Equality Act.

The ET’s ruling means that Mr Jackson’s claim of direct and indirect discrimination based on religion or belief can move ahead. The ruling did not determine whether Mr Jackson actually was the victim of discrimination, nor did it establish that Stoics cannot be dismissed for offensive comments. It is worth noting that the judge for this case, Judge Cheetham QC, said he believed Mr Jackson’s discrimination claims had “little reasonable prospect of success.” Nevertheless, he said it may be necessary to hear evidence to decide the issues and so allowed the claim to proceed.

This case reminds employers that the Equality Act extends protection to many different philosophical beliefs beyond the major established religions. In the past, courts have decided that humanism, veganism and the belief in man-made climate change are all protected under the Act. After this ruling Stoicism can be added to that list. Employers should ensure all beliefs are respected in their workplace and not be too quick to dismiss an employee who may have a protected philosophical belief.

If you have any questions regarding this article, you can call our Employment team today on 023 8071 7717 or email employment@warnergoodman.co.uk.

This was previously part of our weekly Employment Law Newsletter. If you would like to subscribe, please email us at events@warnergoodman.co.uk or just fill in our subscription form.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.