Millions of dollars raised by Celeste Barber’s bushfire appeal can’t go to interstate charities but can be used to support injured firefighters and the families of those who died, a NSW court has ruled.
The comedian nominated the NSW Rural Fire Service as the beneficiary of the campaign which raised $51.3 million, the largest charity drive in Facebook’s history.
Barber, described by Justice Michael Slattery on Monday as “public-spirited”, launched the appeal entitled “Please help anyway you can. This is terrifying” in January after Australia suffered a series of catastrophic bushfires.
After far exceeding her $30,000 goal, she stated on social media that the money would also be distributed to rural fire services from other states, including Victoria and South Australia, victims of the summer bushfire crisis as well as wildlife funds.
The trustees of the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Fund sought advice from the NSW Supreme Court as to the proper interpretation of its April 2012 trust deed.
They wanted to know if the deed limited donations to being spent on purchasing and maintaining equipment, training and resources along with administrative costs.
Justice Slattery on Monday said the trustee could not pay money to other charities or rural fire services – whether in NSW or elsewhere in Australia – to assist people or animals affected by bushfires.
“Some donors may have intended or hoped the money they donated would be used for purposes beyond those which the court has advised are permissible,” the judge said.
“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 … and the court has applied these principles”.
Justice Slattery said public and private statements by Barber or the donors didn’t bind the trustees and the funds “must be applied only for the purposes set out in the RFS Trust Deed”.
The judge said the trustees can, however, set up or contribute to a fund to support rural firefighters injured while firefighting or the families of firies who died.
Such a fund would encourage people to volunteer to contribute to preventing and fighting fires and was permissible under the deed, he found.
The trustees can also use the money to provide physical and mental health training, as well as trauma counselling services, to individual NSW RFS firefighters.
They can set up or contribute to a fund to meet the costs for volunteer rural firefighters to undertake courses to improve their skills.
Justice Slattery ordered the parties’ legal costs be paid out of the RFS fund.
Barber on Monday said she’d hoped the money could be distributed to other states and charities because “it was such a big and unprecedented amount”.
“Turns out that studying acting at university does not make me a lawmaker,” she said in a statement.
“So the money will be in the very capable, very grateful hands of the NSW RFS. To our volunteer firefighters you are rock stars like no others.”
RFS NSW spokesman Greg Allan says the service accepts the ruling and appreciates the support from Barber and the wider community.
“With this direction, we can uphold what the trust was set up for in the first place, and that is supporting the volunteer members and their communities,” he told AAP on Monday.
The RFS has sought feedback from members regarding how the funds should be spent.
The cash will likely be used to purchase fire fighting equipment including respiratory systems, helmets and tools such as chainsaws.
It will also help improve “network connectivity” in vehicles and upgrade local stations.