Can beliefs relating to the sanctity of copyright amount to a ‘philosophical belief’?
28th October, 2019
In Gray v Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd, the Court of Appeal held that the Employment Tribunal was entitled to find that a belief relating to the sanctity of copyright did not amount to a 'philosophical belief' capable of protection under the Equality Act 2010.
On 28 January 2015, Ms Gray started working for Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd (‘Mulberry’) as a Market Support Assistant. As part of her role, Ms Gray had access to Mulberry’s designs ahead of their launch to the market.
Mulberry requires all new employees to sign (alongside their contract of employment) an agreement protecting its intellectual property rights, with provisions similar to those found in most employment contracts. This agreement states that an employee assigns to Mulberry “all copyright works and designs originated, conceived, written or made by you during the period of your service with Mulberry company”. Ms Gray refused to sign this on the basis that it may interfere with any intellectual property developed in her work as a writer and film-maker.
In response, Mulberry amended the standard terms to address these concerns, adding the words “which relate to any business of Mulberry Company or any matter arising from your employment with Mulberry” to the end of the original clause. This was still unacceptable to Ms Gray, as she felt that the additional wording was “general and open to interpretation”. Ms Gray continually refused to sign the agreement and consequently, Mulberry dismissed her with notice.
Ms Gray initially brought an automatically unfair dismissal claim on the basis of having asserted a statutory right, however, the right complained of did not fall under this provision. She later changed her claim to one of direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of belief under section 4 of the Equality Act 2010.
The Employment Tribunal (ET) dismissed her claim. The ET concluded that Ms Gray’s belief met most of the criteria needed for protection, however, it did “carry a sufficient level of cogency and cohesion” due to the different weight that each person would place on this. For example, two people could believe in the sanctity of copyright, and one may refuse to sign anything which sought to infringe upon this, whilst another may not. Therefore, Ms Gray’s belief did not amount to a philosophical belief capable of protection under the Equality Act 2010. In any event, the ET held that Ms Gray’s dismissal was due to her failure to sign the agreement and not because of her belief itself.
In relation to the indirect discrimination claim, the ET held that the requirement to sign the agreement or face dismissal, would not put other employees sharing her belief at a disadvantage to those not holding such a belief but still refusing to sign. In any event, the ET stated that requiring all members of staff to sign such an agreement would be objectively justified as a proportionate means of protecting Mulberry’s intellectual property.
Employment Appeal Tribunal
The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) dismissed Ms Gray’s appeal. The EAT with the ET’s decision.
In addition, the EAT concluded that whilst Ms Gray’s belief may have led to her refusal to sign the agreement, as she had not made Mulberry aware of her belief it could not be the reason for dismissal.
Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal dismissed Ms Gray’s further appeal. The Court held that there was no causal link between the belief held and either Ms Gray’s refusal to sign the agreement or Mulberry’s decision to dismiss her. Ms Gray’s refusal to sign was as a result of the wording of the relevant clause, as she felt that it was too favourable to Mulberry, not because of her belief in general. Additionally, Mulberry’s decision to dismiss was due to Ms Gray’s refusal to sign the agreement, not her belief.
In relation to the indirect discrimination, the key consideration was whether Mulberry’s requirement for employees to sign the agreement put or would put those sharing Ms Gray’s belief at a particular disadvantage when compared to others. She was the only individual holding that belief that was put at a disadvantage (as others may not have had as much difficulty in signing the agreement) and could not produce any evidence that suggested those holding the same belief as her would suffer a disadvantage. This, coupled with the finding that the agreement was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, meant that Ms Gray’s claim could not succeed.
This case is an interesting insight into the factors the Employment Tribunal consider when receiving claims of direct and indirect discrimination. It shows that there must be a sufficiently close link between the actions of a Claimant and the underlying belief that results in a disadvantage. It also highlights the fact that not all beliefs need to relate to religious or moral beliefs in order to attain protection. Ms Gray’s claim failed because of the variety of opinions in relation to the importance of copyright protection, not because the belief in of itself did not relate to a widely held belief.
If you have any questions on the above and how it will affect you, please do not hesitate to get in touch with a member of our employment team.
Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.
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