What Is a Protected Philosophical Belief? Court of Appeal Gives Guidance

Employees who suffer discrimination due to their philosophical beliefs are entitled to compensation – but how are such beliefs to be defined? The Court of Appeal tackled that burning issue in the case of a woman who was sacked for refusing to sign an agreement designed to protect her employer’s intellectual property rights.

copyrightOn her engagement by a luxury fashion company as a market support assistant, the woman was asked to sign what was described as a copyright agreement. It provided, amongst other things, that any discovery or invention that she conceived during the course of her employment would be the property of the company.

The woman, who was a writer and film-maker, refused to sign the agreement on the basis that it might interfere with her private creative work. She said that it was of the utmost importance to her that she retained all rights in her own artistic output. The company proposed amendments to the agreement, clarifying that it had no interest in obtaining copyright to any of her personal work. She persisted in her refusal to sign, however, and was ultimately dismissed.

She later launched Employment Tribunal (ET) proceedings, claiming that she had suffered discrimination due to her conviction that individuals have the right to own intellectual property rights in their own creative works. Her claim was, however, rejected in a decision that was later upheld by the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

In dismissing her appeal against that outcome, the Court found that the cause of her refusal to sign, and ultimately her dismissal, was her concern or theory that the agreement, even in its amended form, leaned too heavily in favour of the company or failed sufficiently to protect her own interests. Such a debate or dispute about the wording of the agreement could not qualify as a philosophical belief within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010.

What was described as her crisis of conscience about signing the agreement was not the result of her belief, but of her wish to achieve greater protection for her own creative works. The requirement to sign the agreement was applied equally to all the company’s employees and was not intrinsically liable to disadvantage a group which shared the woman’s belief. It was in any event reasonable as a proportionate means of achieving the company’s legitimate aim of protecting its intellectual property.