NSW Supreme Court Will Decide How Bushfire Donations Are Distributed

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Aussie Comedian Celeste Barber heads to the Supreme Court for complex legal battle.

She raised more than $50 million in bushfire donations. Now the money is stuck in a legal deadlock, stopping it from being distributed where it’s needed most.

In the days after her own family was directly affected by devastating bushfires, Aussie comedian Celeste Barber started a Facebook campaign to raise money for the Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund. As the fundraiser went viral, so too did its value, raising a staggering $51 million in donations, way outstripping Ms Barber’s original modest goal that it might raise about $30,000.

As bushfires were ranging around the nation, capturing interest from around the world as the toll of lives lost, and the devastation of flora, fauna and wildlife began to become clear, Celeste Barber’s fundraiser gathered momentum. At a time when people were looking at heartbreaking images on TV and social media, donating at the click of a button seemed ike more than a simple act of kindness, it was a gesture of hope, at a time when for many, hope was completely lost.

Funds ‘deadlocked’

But – some several weeks later – not a single cent of it has been spent where donors intended. Initially, there was a slight delay in payments getting to the RFS Trust through PayPal, but hot on the heels of that being resolved, it became very clear that because of legalities written in the Trust deed, donations are actually prevented from being spent on anything other than firefighting equipment and facilities, training and some administrative costs of the brigades.

It’s a complex situation and may well end up in the Supreme Court.

While the Rural Fire Service (RFS) is a state body, funds are governed by its own trust deed and while these are legally binding, they are not legislated, meaning that the NSW Parliament can’t resolve the matter.

Legal options

Options to resolve the issue include applying to the Supreme Court for a cy-près order, which acknowledges that where a charitable trust’s purposes are impossible or cannot be fulfilled, the funds should be reapplied to initiatives in line with the charity’s original goal and purpose.

Another option is to vary the trust deed itself, but this is not simple to do while still maintaining the original spirit and intention of the charitable trust.

A third option is to wind up the Trust which would free up the money, allowing it to be redistributed.

Since it became clear that the funds were in a serious financial predicament, Ms Barber has been seeking legal advice. While her Facebook page clearly states the money was going to the Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund, because of Ms Barber’s popularity, when the post started to circulate, many people believed that it was the major fund raising platform for bushfire victims and fighters.

This was never Ms Barber’s intention, but as time went on, more donors, both locally and overseas began to give to the cause. Questions remain about whether donors really knew exactly what they were donating too – the rural firies, victims, or wildlife.

This is why it’s imperative now, that the funds be divvied up if possible, so the money can be shared across the nation and across charities, rather than be kept solely in NSW, within a trust that, as its current deed stands, has a very narrow focus.

Ms Barber hopes the legal process underway will lead to an outcome that will enable her to honour the bushfire victims, by giving to their families, ensuring that rural fires services in other states and wildlife rescue causes are able to benefit from funds,

Anyone giving to a charitable cause is reminded to ensure they know exactly where the money is going.

In Australia, charities are governed on a state and territory basis. They must be registered and also have Deductible Gift Recipient status (DGR), which enables the organisation to receipt every donation over $2.00, so you can use this as a deduction on your tax return.

In New South Wales, the Department of Fair Trading is responsible for overseeing the prudent management and operational practices of charities.

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About Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer and magazine journalist with an interest in social justice, and a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.

One Comment

  1. Laura

    Why can’t they do something about Red Cross and St Vinnies not handing over our money

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