In what is believed to be the first decision of its kind, gardener Joe Hashman has been successful in his claim that he was discriminated against on the grounds of his anti-fox hunting beliefs.

Mr Hashman brought a claim at the Southampton Employment Tribunal alleging that his employer, Orchard Park, had dismissed him because of his belief.

It was the first case to consider whether a belief in the sanctity of life and in particular anti-hunting beliefs are protected by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, designed to protect individuals holding genuine philosophical beliefs from discrimination on the grounds of their beliefs.

At an earlier hearing on 10 January 2011 the Tribunal had already decided that a belief in the sanctity of life extending to Mr Hashman’s “fervent anti-fox hunting belief (and also his anti-hare coursing belief) constitute a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.”

This week, the Employment Judge and two Lay Judges unanimously ruled that Mr Hashman had been discriminated against in breach of the regulations on the grounds of his philosophical beliefs.

Mr Hashman was engaged by the Orchard Park Garden Centre on 25 March 2009. On 2 September 2009 he was advised by the Garden Centre Manager, Richard Cumming, that he should not come to work due to a number of issues that had “been thrown up.” Mr Hashman said he was surprised by this because he had been led to believe that he would continue to work on projects at Orchard Park on a long-term basis and there had been no indication prior to this that his employment would end or that there was any dissatisfaction with his performance. He suspected that the reason may be to do with his animal rights beliefs.

He alleges that he subsequently had a telephone conversation with Mr Cumming on 10 September 2009, during which it was confirmed that his contract had been terminated because Lucinda Stokes, Sheila Clarke and her husband, as Board Members, were not happy that he was working for Orchard Park because he was an animal rights activist and hunt saboteur.

He confirmed that tensions were particularly high because of the death of Andrew Prater in August 2009, who was the Clarkes’ former farm manager and had been a well-known hunt servant with whom Mr Hashman had had many run-ins. It was also confirmed that they were upset about the conviction of a fellow hunt person, which had come about partly as a result of evidence provided by Mr Hashman in his activities as an undercover investigator into unlawful hare coursing.

An undisclosed settlement has been agreed between Mr Hashman and his former employer and the Directors of Orchard Park made a public statement of apology relating to a memo that had been circulated at Orchard Park in November 2010 about Mr Hashman. The apology stated:

“We the Directors of Orchard Park, unreservedly apologise to Mr Hashman for any injury to his feelings arising from the memo dated 18 November 2010. In particular we accept that Mr Hashman did not seek to mislead us or set us up in relation to his animal welfare beliefs and actions. Equally we did not intend to suggest that Mr Hashman engaged in any bullying or mud-slinging. We wish Mr Hashman well for the future, in particular in his career as a writer.”

Speaking after the judgment, Mr Hashman’s solicitor Shah Qureshi, of Bindmans LLP, said:

“This judgment vindicates Joe’s decision to bring this case and fight for justice after he lost his livelihood. It is a welcome conclusion to a long-running saga after Joe was dismissed in September 2009 because of his belief in the sanctity of life and in particular anti- fox hunting and anti-hare coursing. Along the way he established that such beliefs are protected by the UK’s equality laws and the ever-growing number of animal rights campaigners will now enjoy protection from discrimination.

“The ruling reminds us that genuine philosophical beliefs, not just religious beliefs, are worthy and capable of protection under the law. The judgment sends a signal to employers that discriminating against someone because of their deeply held beliefs is unacceptable and unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.”

The recent case of Grainger Plc and Others v. Tim Nicholson established that Mr Nicholson’s strong views on climate change went “beyond a mere opinion” and amounted to a belief capable of protection. The guidance that was given in that case was applied at the hearing in Mr Hashman’s case.

The amount of compensation Mr Hashman received has not been disclosed but is understood to run to five figures.