The Supreme Court of NSW has ruled that the NSW Rural Fire Service cannot divide the $52 million in donations it received from Celeste Barber’s Facebook fundraiser in January.
Barber’s bushfire appeal, which initially aimed to gather $30,000, was to be donated to the Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Fund, for firefighting equipment and training.
Once the fundraiser surpassed $50 million, Barber indicated she would divide the donations amongst the states’ fire services.
"So it's going to the RFS and it will be distributed out,” Barber said of the funds on her Instagram in January.
"So I'm gonna make sure that Victoria gets some, that South Australia gets some, also families of people who have died in these fires, the wildlife...I get it, I get it all, I'm hearing you all. I want you to know that, otherwise why raise this money if it's not going to go to the people who absolutely need it."
But the ruling means the funds can only be given to the NSW RFS for the purposes stipulated in the trust deed, which are: “for the purpose of supporting the volunteer-based fire and emergency service…in order to enable or assist them to meet the costs of purchasing and maintaining firefighting equipment and facilities, providing training and resources and/or to otherwise meet the administrative expense”.
However, NSW Supreme Court Justice Michael Slattery stated the NSW RFS may also set up or contribute to a fund to support rural firefighters injured while firefighting, or the families of rural firefighters killed while firefighting.
They can only do this through providing physical or mental health training and resources or trauma counselling services to volunteer firefighters who require them in connection with performing the functions of the NSW Rural Fire Service.
The NSW RFS may also set up or contribute to a fund to meet the costs for volunteer rural firefighters to attend and complete courses that improve skills related to the volunteer-based fire and emergency services activities.
“Some donors may have intended or hoped that the money they donated would be used for purposes beyond those which the Court has advised are permissible,” Justice Slattery stated.
“Despite the trustees’ wish to honour those intentions or hopes, the law provides principles that ensure a degree of certainty in the application of trust funds, including charitable trust funds, and the Court has applied these principles in giving its advice in these reasons.”