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Unfair dismissal claim - beyond belief?

15 July 2009

An executive sacked from a giant property company has successfully claimed he was unfairly dismissed because of his ‘philosophical belief in climate change’.

The claimant, Tim Nicholson, had been made redundant in 2008 from his job as head of sustainability at Britain’s biggest residential property investment company. He claimed one of the reasons for his sacking was his conviction about the importance of the environment which put him at odds, he said, with other senior executives within the firm. Mr Nicholson stated that his conviction amounted to a philosophical belief under the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations. The tribunal found in his favour.

Discrimination on the grounds of religion has been unlawful for over 5 years. Up to now, most case law has dealt with questions relating to specific faiths, such as whether or not a Muslim woman could wear a veil or a Christian woman a cross. However, the regulations also cover discrimination on the grounds of ‘belief’.

So what constitutes ‘a belief’? It can be a religious belief, such as atheism or humanism, or a ‘similar philosophical belief’. In considering Mr Nicholson’s case, the tribunal referred to European case law which states: “for a belief to qualify for protection it must have sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and also be worthy of respect in a civilised society’” (And as we know, the European court is always the best judge on what ideas are acceptable!)

It is interesting to note—particularly to those who are more sceptical about the link between climate change and human activity—that the tribunal put Tim Nicholson’s beliefs on a par with those derived from the major world religions, ie not something born of empirical evidence and scientific fact.
This is clearly an unusual set of facts and does not mean that simply any belief will be protected. Nor is it necessarily the end of the matter as Mr Nicholson’s employer, Grainger plc, have said they intend to appeal the decision.


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