Court of Appeal holds that belief in right to own copyright created not a philosophical belief under Equality Act (Grey v Mulberry Limited [2019] EWCA Civ 1720)

In Grey v Mulberry Limited [2019] EWCA Civ 1720 the Court of Appeal considered whether the Employment Appeal Tribunal were correct to dismiss the Claimant’s appeal from a decision of the Employment Tribunal.  The Employment Tribunal had originally held that an employee had not been discriminated against because of her philosophical beliefs when she refused to sign an intellectual property agreement because she was concerned about the rights it would give her employer over her work as a writer and a film maker.

The facts in Gray v Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd

On 28 January 2015, Ms Gray (the ‘Claimant’) started working for Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd (‘the Respondent’) as a Market Support Assistant.

The Respondent required all new employees to sign an agreement protecting its intellectual property rights. The agreement stated that an employee assigns to them “all copyright works and designs originated, conceived, written or made by you during the period of your service’. The Claimant refused to sign because she was concerned it also covered her work as a writer and film maker.

In response to her concerns the Respondent agreed to amend the agreement to add “which relate to any business of Mulberry Company or any matter arising from your employment with Mulberry”.  Still concerned about the wording the Claimant continued to refuse to sign the agreement and she was dismissed with notice by the Respondent.

The Claimant initially brought an automatic unfair dismissal claim on the basis of having asserted a statutory right.  She later changed her claim to one of direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of philosophical belief under section 4 of the Equality Act 2010.  The philosophical belief she was attempting to rely on was that she should own and profit from the rights to her work.

The decision of the Employment Tribunal

The Employment Tribunal (‘ET’) dismissed the Claimant direct discrimination claim.  They found that the Claimant had been dismissed because of her failure to sign the agreement and not because of her belief itself.  They also found that her belief, while genuinely held and concerning a substantial and weighty aspect of human life, could not be defined as a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.

They also dismissed the Claimant’s indirect discrimination claim holding that the Respondent’s actions were a proportionate means of safeguarding its intellectual property. The requirement to sign the agreement or face dismissal, did not put other employees sharing her belief at a disadvantage to those not holding such a belief, but still refusing to sign.

The Claimant appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (‘EAT’).

Employment Appeal Tribunal

The EAT dismissed the Claimant’s appeal. They concluded that whilst the Claimant’s belief may have led to her refusal to sign the agreement, as she had not made the Respondent aware of her belief it could not have been the reason for dismissal.

They also agreed with the ET that her belief lacked sufficient cogency to qualify as a protected belief under the Equality Act.  They found that having a belief (albeit relating to an important aspect of human life or behaviour) was not enough in itself for it to have a similar status to a religious belief.

Finally, there was no indirect discrimination. The Claimant failed to establish any group disadvantage in relation to the conduct she was complaining of.

The Claimant appealed to the Court of Appeal.

Court of Appeal

The Claimant’s appeal was dismissed.

The Court of Appeal (‘COA’) held that there was no protected philosophical belief made out because there was no causal link between the Claimant’s belief’s and her refusal to sign the agreement or the Respondent’s decision to dismiss her (it is important to note here that at no time had the Claimant advised the Respondent as to her belief).  They held that the Claimant had refused to sign the agreement because she felt it was too favourable to the Respondent, not because of her belief in general.  It agreed that this could not be considered a philosophical belief. In its judgment the COA stated: “The claimant’s crisis of conscience about signing and/or refusal to sign was not the result of her belief, as defined, but the result of her wish to achieve greater protection for her own creative works.’

In relation to the indirect discrimination claim, the key consideration was whether the Respondent’s requirement for employees to sign the agreement put or would put those sharing the Claimant’s belief at a particular disadvantage when compared to others. As the Claimant was unable to provide any evidence showing that those holding the same belief as her would suffer a disadvantage, coupled with fact that the agreement was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, meant the Claimant’s claim could not succeed.

Our solicitors’ views on the case of Grey v Mulberry Limited

Sacha Barrett, a Senior Associate in the employment department at Redmans, made the following comment on the case: “Whilst philosophical belief has a wide meaning, it must relate to a ‘weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour’ and attain a ‘certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance’. The sanctity of an individual’s intellectual property rights, on this occasion, did not meet that high bar.’

The decision of the Court of Appeal in Grey v Mulberry Limited [2019] EWCA Civ 1720 can be found here.