The NSW Rural Fire Service could find out this week how it can spend more than $51 million donated during comedian Celeste Barber’s bushfire appeal.
Supreme Court Justice Michael Slattery on Monday reserved his decision as the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Fund sought legal clarity on the use of the money.
It asked the court to decide how it could use the donations and whether it could pass on the money to other charitable causes.
In January, Barber prompted an outpouring of goodwill and donations from across the world when she launched the “Please help anyway you can. This is terrifying” appeal on Facebook.
She nominated the NSW RFS as the beneficiary of the campaign and set a funding target of $30,000.
Barber – who has 7.1 million followers on Instagram – raised $51.3 million, the largest charity drive in Facebook’s history.
After far exceeding her fundraising goal, she subsequently 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, and wildlife funds.
But the terms of the RFS Fund trust deed limit the donations to being spent on purchasing and maintaining firefighting equipment and facilities, training and resources, as well as administrative expenses.
Lawyers acting for Andrew MacDonald, the chairman of the NSW RFS and Brigades Donations Fund, asked the court whether the money could be donated to other charities, brigades in states other than NSW, firefighters injured in the line of duty or the families of firefighters who have been killed.
Jeremy Giles SC told the Supreme Court on Monday that the RFS would give “anxious consideration” to a trust benefitting injured or fallen firefighters.
“This application is not about Ms Barber’s appeal and what was said during that appeal to the public,” Mr Giles said.
“Ms Barber’s appeal was a spectacular success and the citizens of this state, of Australia and more broadly throughout the world were extremely generous in a time of considerable need.”
The court heard there was agreement among lawyers for the RFS and NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman that the money could not be contributed to other charities or interstate rural fire brigades.
Court documents reveal a high level of confusion among people who donated.
While many posted on Barber’s social media supporting her drive to raise funds for the NSW RFS, others expressed a desire for their donations to go elsewhere.
“Is all this money going to the fire services or is it actually going to the victims who need this money????” one person said.
Another wrote: “My family and I donated because we love animals”.
Justice Slattery said he would deliver his decision either late this week or early next week.
“I know the funds are there and people want to use them,” he said on Monday.