Mona El Baba - El Baba Lawyers

The Fair Work Ombudsman has secured $14,400 in penalties in court against a Sydney-based law firm and its director after a “wilful refusal to comply” with a Compliance Notice.

The Federal Circuit and Family Court has imposed a penalty of $12,000 against El Baba Lawyers Pty Ltd, based at Bankstown in south-west Sydney, and a $2,400 penalty against the company’s sole director Mona El Baba, a lawyer.

The penalties were imposed in response to El Baba Lawyers failing to comply with a Compliance Notice requiring it to back-pay entitlements to a worker it employed on a full-time basis as a personal assistant/legal secretary from July 2020 to February 2021. Ms El Baba was involved in the contravention.

El Baba Lawyers back-paid the worker only after the Fair Work Ombudsman commenced legal action.

Fair Work Ombudsman Anna Booth said business operators that fail to act on Compliance Notices need to be aware they can face penalties in court on top of having to back-pay workers.

“When Compliance Notices are not followed, we will continue to take legal action. Employers who fail to act on these notices risk substantial penalties and back-pay orders,” Ms Booth said.

“Any employees with concerns about their pay or entitlements should contact us for free advice and assistance.”

The FWO investigated after receiving a request for assistance from the affected worker.

A Fair Work Inspector issued a Compliance Notice to El Baba Lawyers in March 2021 after forming a belief the worker had been underpaid minimum wages owed under the Legal Services Award 2020.

In his penalty judgment, Judge Nicholas Manousaridis described the $2,950 underpayment of the worker as “a significant amount” and noted the time that it took, which was 13 months after the Compliance Notice was issued, for the company to eventually back-pay the worker.

Judge Manousaridis did not accept Ms El Baba’s submission that she had meaningfully engaged with the FWO and found instead that the breach was a “wilful refusal to comply with the Compliance Notice based on an unreasonable belief”.

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“[El Baba Lawyers] did not comply with the Compliance Notice because of what I have found was an unreasoned and unreasonable belief Ms El Baba maintained that [El Baba Lawyers] did not owe [the worker] any money on account of his wages,” Judge Manousaridis said.

Judge Manousaridis found that the FWO provided extensive information that enabled “Ms El Baba – a lawyer – to identify what the FWO alleged constituted the contravention” and to enable the law firm to understand its obligations under the Compliance Notice.

“Employers should be on notice that their deciding not to comply with a compliance notice on the basis of nothing more than their unreasoned and unreasonable belief that they are not obliged to do so will result in their being met with a significant penalty,” Judge Manousaridis said.

Employers and employees can visit or call the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94 for free advice and assistance about their rights and obligations in the workplace. An interpreter service is available on 13 14 50.

The FWO provides a free online course to help employers understand what a Compliance Notice is and how to respond if they get one. The Compliance Notice course, among a suite of free interactive courses on offer for employers, managers and employees, is available in our online learning centre.

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