Vegan Rights in the UK
The legal protections afforded to vegans in the United Kingdom (UK) are not well known or understood.
Vegans are people who hold the moral conviction that it is wrong to exploit and kill non-human animals unnecessarily. Vegans in the UK have the same protections as those who hold religious beliefs. In the same way that someone who holds a religious belief has the right to manifest that belief, by living in accordance with it, so too do vegans have the right to live according to their moral conviction. Just as it is unlawful to discriminate against or harass someone because of their religious beliefs, it is unlawful to discriminate against or harass vegans because of their convictions.
These protections are little known and rarely used, but awareness is increasing and vegans are beginning to make reference to their rights in appropriate situations, such as when their children are being denied access to suitable food in school, or when they are in hospital. The more we make use of our rights, drawing the attention of employers, state service providers and the government to the protections we have, and why we have them, the better. Widespread change will require a significant element of self-help by those of us who are able to do so, and our aim is to assist vegans to advocate for change.
Each letter and email will be worthwhile, increasing awareness of: (1) veganism and what it really means; that it is not a diet or a lifestyle, but rather a way of living in recognition of the rights of other animals; (2) the needs of vegans; to be able to avoid animal exploitation in all its forms, and (3) the legal requirements with respect to vegans.
If we all advocate consistently for our rights, keeping our focus at all times on non-human animals, we can use vegan rights to promote veganism and respect for the rights of vegans at the same time.
The content of this page is intended to be used for general information only. Nothing contained on this page is intended to nor does constitute legal advice, and it should not be relied upon or treated as a substitute for specific advice relevant to particular circumstances.
Vegans in the UK have protections under international, European and UK law. Their rights come from human rights treaties and equality laws which have evolved from human rights principles and provisions. These rights can be used to advocate for better provision for vegans and to challenge discriminatory practices.
Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Belief
The right to live practically as a vegan is grounded in the human right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Everyone has the right to this freedom, which is formally known as the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right is considered to be one of the most important human rights and it appears in a number of international treaties: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("ICCPR"), the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (“the Charter”).
The 1998 Human Rights Act made it possible to enforce this right through the UK court as well as by taking a claim to the European Court of Human Rights ("ECtHR").
What does the right cover?
(1) We all have complete freedom of thought, conscience and belief, meaning that no one can lawfully seek to limit what thoughts or beliefs we hold. This right is sometimes shortened to ‘freedom of religion’ but, in fact, this human right concerns both religious and non-religious beliefs equally.
(2) We also have the right to manifest (or act in accordance with) beliefs that have protected status. Veganism has protected status.
Under the ECHR beliefs are protected if they have “a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance”, are “sincerely held and worthy of respect in a democratic society” and are “not incompatible with the fundamental rights of others”. ECtHR decisions have confirmed that veganism meets this test and therefore veganism is protected.
For example, in the case of W v UK a claim was brought by a prisoner who had not been permitted to be excluded from working in the prison print room, which he claimed was a breach of his vegan beliefs as the inks used in the print room were not suitable for vegans.
The European Commission on Human Rights (now the ECtHR) noted that the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief “protects the sphere of private, personal beliefs and the acts which are intimately linked to these attitudes”, and found “that the vegan convictions with regard to animal products fall within the scope of [the protection].”
The UK Equalities and Human Rights Commission also notes that the Article 9 right: “protects a wide range of non-religious beliefs including atheism, agnosticism, veganism and pacifism.”
Vegans in the UK therefore have the absolute right to believe that it is morally wrong to subjugate, exploit and kill non-human animals unnecessarily and, because it is protected, to live according to that belief or conviction.
The Extent of the Right
The right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief has such a significant status in human rights that there are very strict rules about interference. The State (or government) can restrict the manifestation of protected beliefs (or acts which are intimately connected to the protected belief or conviction) only to the extent that those restrictions are: (1) prescribed by law and (2) necessary in a democratic society to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
Any restriction on the freedom to live according to fundamental convictions must also be proportionate, going no further than is necessary to achieve a legitimate aim.
In the UK we are unlikely often to encounter a direct, express legal restriction on our ability to manifest our vegan convictions; for example, a law requiring us to use or consume animals or animal products. What we do see, however, is apparently neutral laws that have an impact on the ability of vegans to live according to their vegan convictions. For example, where vegans are relying on the state to provide them with food and no suitable food is available.
STATE OBLIGATION TO SECURE RIGHT
There is a positive obligation on the State (government) to secure to vegans their right to act in accordance with their convictions by avoiding participation in the exploitation and killing of non-human animals.
Human rights obligations apply to States and State entities. The government must therefore ensure that vegans are able to act in accordance with their vegan convictions in government-run entities such as hospitals, schools, prisons and care homes, and State entities such as parliament and local authorities (councils).
Our ability to live according to our protected moral conviction is directly affected by the availability of non-animal-based alternatives, for food, clothing, activities and non-food products.
For example, the requirements of a vegan patient who is reliant upon a hospital for food and drink during their stay must be taken seriously. If the hospital does not provide suitable food, the vegan patient will not be able to live according to their convictions and will be in the unconscionable position of having to breach their fundamental convictions or go hungry. A vegan who has their request for suitable food denied would have a potential claim against the government entity for breach of their right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. If that claim went before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) (after going through the UK courts) the court would balance the interests of the vegan patient against the interests of the community as a whole.
Where a claim is made in relation to the ethical expression of fundamental convictions in a way that concerns food, the ECtHR has made it very clear that it regards the disadvantage to the applicant to be significant. That is unsurprising when we consider the importance of access to food.
In two cases (Jakobski v Poland and Vartik v Romania) the ECtHR found that diet was an expression of protected beliefs and that the state was in breach of a prisoner’s right to act in accordance with those beliefs by failing to provide suitable food. The state’s argument that it was not in breach because the overall approach was a fair balance between the interests of the prisoner and the other prisoners and the prison failed as the ECtHR found that providing suitable food would not have caused significant disruption or have affected the quality of meals generally. Therefore, the state was in breach of the prisoner’s right to act in accordance with his protected beliefs by failing to provide him with suitable food.
If a claim was made in the UK in relation to our State’s failure to provide suitable food for vegans, in assessing whether or not there was a breach of our right to manifest our protected belief we could expect the court to put significant weight on the disadvantage caused by denial of suitable food; there would be a high burden on the State to show that on balance they shouldn’t have to provide it because of the associated disruption or burden. A court could take into account the fact that: many UK hospitals and schools provide excellent vegan options on their daily menus; most vegan food is inclusive in that it can be eaten by anyone, vegan or non-vegan; vegan options are often cheaper to prepare, and the respected dietetics associations of the UN, US and UK all recognise a fully plant-based diet as nutritionally adequate, with a growing body of evidence indicating that not eating any animal protein is better for our health. Plant-based food also fits well with national and local government objectives on sustainability and the environment.
Therefore, on the basis of their right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief, vegans should be requesting food that is suitable for them in all of our State institutions: schools, hospitals, care homes, prisons and local authorities. In order to ensure that they are not in breach of our rights, our governments and local authorities should be ensuring that every state entity offers good vegan options on a day to day basis. Some local authorities are beginning to recognise the importance of supporting plant-based eating in terms of health, sustainability and the environment.
As discussed above, vegans avoid participating in the commodification, exploitation and killing of nonhuman animals in any way, and not only in relation to food. The approach outlined above can also be applied to non-food related matters.
If requests for accommodation from vegans are refused, a state entity must justify the failure to enable vegans to live according to their conviction by demonstrating that doing so would cause too much disruption and/or be too heavy a burden, financially or otherwise, such that it would be detrimental to overall interests. If it is possible to meet a legitimate objective while accommodating the request of vegans, and meeting such requests presents no overriding problems, then the State is unlikely to be able to justify refusing to meet the needs of vegans.
For example, a vegan school pupil may request exemption from a requirement to dissect the dead bodies of animals. If a request is refused the school would need to justify that refusal on the basis that it would be unduly disruptive or burdensome to provide an alternative. In considering whether or not the State had carried out the balancing exercise appropriately, the court could take into account: the necessity of the procedure to achieve an educational objective, the availability of alternatives and the fact that other schools/local authorities have been able to provide alternatives.
The same exercise could be carried out for other non-food matters. For example, vegans in state employment, such as the police service or fire service may request alternatives to standard issue uniform items that are made from animal skin. If an employee requests a non-animal version of a standard issue item and it is reasonably straightforward to obtain that for them, without causing a lot of disruption or disproportionate additional cost, it would be difficult for the State employer to justify refusing that request. A court would take account of the fact that other employers manage to provide vegan alternatives. For example, we understand that the Royal Mail offers leather-free boots to its employees; while no longer a State entity, the court may look to equivalent private businesses, where relevant.
Personal protective equipment such as safety boots for the UK fire service will need to be certified to meet the appropriate safety standards. If, following research, it appears that there are no suitable animal-free boots available, then the state would have a good justification for failing to accommodate the request. However, non-animal products are becoming more readily available and therefore it is becoming more difficult for employers to refuse to accommodate vegan requirements. For example, we are advised that vegan fire personnel in the UK can be accommodated with appropriate footwear and that the vegan alternative is outperforming standard issue boots.
The prison print room case referred to previously demonstrates that our rights do have limits and there will be scenarios in which a court would find that in refusing a request, the State had struck the correct balance between the rights of a vegan and the interests of the wider community. It should be noted, however, that the disadvantage caused to a vegan from having to use inks that may have been tested on animals (it could not be established definitively one way or another) might be seen as of less significance than, for example, having to dissect an animal’s body knowing the animal was killed for that purpose or having to wear an animal’s skin day on day, knowing an animal was killed because of demand for that product. The greater the detrimental impact on the vegan the more of a burden on the state to justify its failure.
Therefore, on the basis of their right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief, vegans should request that they be given animal-free alternatives to non-food products/activities.
Vegan parents have the right to respect for their convictions in relation to state provision of education, under both international and European human rights law. This applies not only to the core education process, but to each and every function that a state body undertakes in the sphere of education and teaching, including functions considered to be ancillary.
The right is not absolute and the UK has caveated the obligation so that it has to comply only in so far as that is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training, and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure. Nevertheless, if education is not in conformity with the parental right to respect for their philosophical beliefs, the State will have to justify that. They will have to show that the protected beliefs were properly considered, and that there were good reasons for taking the approach they did, and that the way they approached it in an objective and critical way, catering for a diversity of beliefs.
There have been successful parental rights claims in the UK. For example, the claim that the infliction of corporal punishment in a state school breached the parents’ right to ensure that their children were educated in conformity with their philosophical conviction, that it is wrong to use physical violence against children, led to the abolition of corporal punishment in UK state schools (and later all UK schools).
We are not aware of many claims by vegan parents based on their right to have their children educated in conformity with their philosophical convictions, but the corporal punishment case demonstrates just how impactful a successful claim can be, leading to a wholesale change in the law and the broader social mind-set in a very short period of time.
Vegan parents can refer to their parental right to respect for their protected convictions in challenging and/or seeking provision of alternatives for their children, for example in relation to:
classroom / school use of animals;
school trips to places where animals are used / killed;
talks by external speakers that promote the use of animals;
speciesist texts, and
failure to provide suitable food options.
In addition to our human rights, everyone in the UK has protections under European equality law. European equality provisions require the government to prohibit discrimination on a number of protected grounds, including on the grounds of non-religious beliefs These protections have been incorporated into the UK through the UK Equality Act 2010 (“the Equality Act”), applicable in England, Scotland and Wales.
The Equality Act consolidated, harmonised and strengthened equality law in the UK, which had up until then been covered by a set of Acts of Parliament put in place in order to comply with European Directives, which dealt with equality obligations in specific contexts.
The Equality Act provides that “philosophical beliefs” are a protected characteristic. Protected philosophical beliefs are those that satisfy the test already referred to in relation to the human right of freedom of thought, conscience and belief, that it is a belief that is: genuinely held and not an opinion based on presently available information; has a certain level of cogency, seriousness and importance; is worthy of respect in a democratic society and is not incompatible with human dignity and the fundamental rights of others.
The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (“EHRC”), which is the regulatory body responsible for monitoring the UK’s implementation of the EU equality provisions in Britain, recognises veganism as a protected philosophical conviction; the UK Government has conceded that veganism is a protected conviction and the UK Employment Appeal Tribunal noted the recognition of veganism as a protected philosophical conviction in the context of confirming that beliefs in relation to the environment and climate change were also protected. There is little doubt that veganism is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act.
While there have been no public decisions on vegan equality claims as such, cases that might be said to have relevance to potential vegan claims, and which have resulted in reported decisions, include a claim by: (1) an environmentalist and (2) a vegan, based on his “belief in the sanctity of life” which extended to “his fervent anti-fox-hunting belief”.
In the case of Grainger plc v Nicholson 2009, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (“EAT”) drew on decisions from the ECtHR regarding protected non-religious beliefs and found that a philosophical belief about the environment and climate change could be a protected belief, if genuinely held. In reaching this view the EAT had regard to human rights cases such as W v UK, (the prison print room case referred to previously) in which veganism was found to be a protected moral conviction.
In the case of the vegan claimant who claimed to have been dismissed for his anti-fox-hunting views, Hashman v Milton Park, the Employment Tribunal held that a belief in the sanctity of life and the moral duty to avoid unnecessary suffering to animals constituted a protected philosophical belief in Mr Hashman’s case.
The Equality Act refers to four main ways in which a person can suffer discrimination and unfair treatment in relation to protected characteristics. These are: a) direct discrimination; b) indirect discrimination; c) harassment and d) victimisation.
Direct discrimination occurs when you are treated less favourably than someone else in a similar context, simply because you are vegan. To claim direct discrimination you must compare yourself to a non-vegan who has not been disadvantaged, unless it is very obvious that your veganism is the reason you have been disadvantaged.
Examples of direct discrimination:
An interviewer rules out your job application on the basis that you are vegan. You are clearly the best candidate but they do not want to employ vegans.
You are told you cannot attend a work function because you are vegan and it wouldn’t go down well. None of your colleagues have been excluded. They are all non-vegan.
You are told, off the record, by a senior colleague, that you will not be considered for promotion, despite being skilled and qualified, because you are vegan.
For a recent example of direct discrimination against vegans see: www.thelawyer.com/vegan-rights-uk/
There is an exception for direct discrimination where the particular occupational activities or of the context in which they are carried out mean that being non-vegan is a genuine and determining occupational requirement.
Indirect discrimination can occur when you are subject to a rule, a practice or a policy that applies to everyone but, because you are vegan, it puts you at a disadvantage. Formal and informal practices are covered, as are long-standing and newly made policies and plans for the future. To claim indirect discrimination you need to show that other vegans would also be disadvantaged by the policy or rule, even although there may not be other vegans who are affected.
Examples which may constitute indirect discrimination:
A restaurant has a practice on Sundays of offering a “buy one get one free” drink when customers order the Sunday “roast”, which is not vegan. Because you are vegan, and select a vegan meal option, you are disadvantaged.
Your line manager creates what they think is a fair rule for the rota for buying “milk” for the kitchen. This applies equally to everyone but disadvantages vegans as purchasing milk that has been taken from cows is against their convictions.
It is possible to defend a claim of indirect discrimination if it can be shown that there is a reason for the rule, practice or policy, which would be considered by a reasonable person to be a good reason. In legal terms, this is known as an “objective justification”. In determining if there is a good reason for the policy a court can consider things like health and safety, business costs, the need to make a profit and efficiency. The policy must also be shown to be an appropriate and proportional way of achieving that legitimate aim. The burden of proof is on the person who creates the rule, practice or policy to show that it has a legitimate aim and is proportionate. If there was an alternative measure which was as good and which would not have put vegans at a disadvantage, it would be difficult for them to show that it was a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim.
In the Equality Act “harassment” is a term used in the broadest sense. You are a victim of harassment if you are made to feel distressed, intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended or when you are subjected to an environment in which you feel that your dignity is violated.
Some examples of what constitutes harassment are: spoken or written abusive comments (including what is written in emails or on social media); sketches or images that you find shocking and personally degrading, offensive; gestures that are designed to ridicule and humiliate you; jokes or facial expressions that are designed to demean you and your ethical orientation.
An important element of this provision of the Equality Act is that the harassment does not have to be intentional; the person or people making the comments may not intend to make you feel humiliated or to create a hostile or offensive environment, but what matters is whether or not they had that impact on you.
Examples which may constitute harassment:
You are out with colleagues in a restaurant and some of them start making offensive jokes about your food. This escalates after a few drinks, when they start to make animal sounds every time you pass by.
You are eating lunch at your desk when your colleagues come back into the office. They immediately start making offensive comments about what your food looks like and enthusing with each other about what they have just eaten.
You are at a team building event. At the end of the day the final task is that you each write an anonymous, supportive and memorable observation for a named colleague about the usefulness of the day. The anonymous comments are sealed and passed to the named recipients. When you open yours, you are horrified and shocked to find no words written but an offensive drawing relating to veganism.
You are victimised if, when you have raised a complaint under the Equality Act about the way you have been unfairly treated, you are made to feel as if you are a ‘trouble maker’ or you are singled out in some other way, such as being left out or denied certain privileges from which others benefit.
Example which may constitute victimisation:
You feel that your dignity was violated because you were the subject of offensive and humiliating jokes over a sustained period of time. During this time, you started to feel anxious about going to work and had feelings of dread in the office. Although you had quietly endured these conditions, you felt that things had reached unacceptable levels on one occasion and you realised at that time that a boundary of respect had been breached. You went to see your line manager about it but were not taken seriously. In fact, as a result of raising the complaint under the Equality Act, you subsequently felt ignored, overlooked and ostracised. You were also left out of important meetings which you had previously attended.
Who has the obligation?
The Equality Act applies to all employers, public and private, and to all providers of goods and services to the public, whether public or private, and to public functions and education. By extending protections beyond employers the UK has chosen to go further than is required under EU law.
The prohibition against discrimination, direct and indirect, applies in all these areas. The prohibition on harassment and victimisation in relation to protected beliefs applies expressly in the employment context but does not expressly feature for service providers or in primary education. However, in practice harassment and victimisation will often also constitute direct discrimination.
Public Sector Equality Duty
In addition to the specific requirements to refrain from and prevent discrimination, harassment and victimisation on account of vegan convictions, government bodies also have a duty called the “Public Sector Equality Duty” or “PSED”. This requires the public sector (including hospitals, schools, local authorities, police, fire, transport authorities, and private organisations carrying out public functions) to go further than merely refraining from discriminating against people who hold vegan beliefs. They must also have due regard, in carrying out their functions, to the need to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity.
This duty means that public bodies must remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by vegans on account of their vegan convictions, and take steps to meet the needs of vegans, where those needs are different to the needs of non-vegans. This is important to keep in mind when dealing with a government entity which is failing to take steps to enable vegans to live according to their convictions.
Very few human rights-based claims have been taken by vegans, either domestically to the UK courts or to the ECtHR. It would be useful to have one or more claims made to the courts in order that we draw attention to these rights and the vegan convictions that give rise to them.
However, awareness of our rights as vegans is not only relevant in relation to making formal claims, it will also be useful to help us obtain the things we need in our daily lives and help pave the way for others, including vegan children, to live according to their convictions. Instigating a dialogue with schools, hospitals, care homes and employers (among others), informed by reference to our rights, will educate, improve awareness, increase understanding and ultimately improve provision. From our own experience of assisting people with these issues, in some cases we have been able to secure rapid alterations and public apologies. Importantly, improving social conditions for vegans is a critical part of bringing about the transformation in society that is needed in order to secure an end to animal use.
There are recent examples of vegans using their rights to advocate for important changes and it is heartening to see that awareness is increasing: www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/vegan-free-school-meals-bury-15254775
LEAVING THE EU / BREXIT
Withdrawal from the ECHR does not flow automatically from Brexit. The UK would need to make a separate decision to withdraw from the ECHR. The current Prime Minister, Theresa May, had at one stage expressed an intention to withdraw from the Convention, but since the Brexit vote the position has changed and current indications are that the UK may remain party to the ECHR and subject to the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”). This is a moving situation and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (“EHRC”) is providing updates.
European Equality Directives are EU law and therefore the UK will not necessarily be bound by them after we leave the EU, depending on the terms of our exit. The Equality Act will remain part of UK law unless and until it is repealed or amended. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill indicates that the equality protections will remain part of UK law post-Brexit and that current European Court of Justice (“ECJ”) caselaw interpreting those provisions will continue to be applied. This is a developing situation and there is much ongoing discussion about how the Government’s plans would work in practice.
Our right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief gives us a basis upon which to press for adequate provision for vegans in our state entities and for government action to ensure adequate protection in the private sphere, while our equality laws protect us from discrimination based on our fundamental convictions in both the public and the private spheres. We can refer to both our human rights and the equality protections in advocating for suitable provision and alternatives. In terms of human rights we must also keep in mind the parental right to respect for their fundamental convictions and in relation to equality laws we should refer to the PSED as well as the rules on discrimination when dealing with a public entity.
The above points are covered in much more detail in the self-published book Vegan Rights in the UK by Barbara Bolton and Jeanette Rowley. Hard copies of the book can be purchased from our store, with the proceeds being used to pay for printing the book and anything left over put into further development of the publication / professional publishing. The authors are not taking any payments. www.goveganscotland.com/product-page/paperback-vegan-rights-in-the-uk-promoting-animal-liberation-using-vegan-rights
A PDF version of the book is available here for free (but if anyone would like to make a donation in support of this work they can do so by paypal to or to the GVS bank account HSBC: sort code 40-22-44, account number 92231220):
We have summarised these rights in recorded talks available on our YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBYa5wm5_ns&t=39s
The audio version can be listened to here, or on our podcast Go Vegan Scotland: