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Bushfires: new battle over aid allocation

Over $50 million raised for bushfire charities will likely need a NSW Supreme Court ruling to allocate it. Photo: Geralt/Pixabay


Millions of dollars in bushfire donations from across the world are being handcuffed by the fine print. In January 2020, Australian comedian Celeste Barber’s bushfire charity fundraiser Facebook event surpassed $50 million dollars in donations, making it the largest ever fundraiser organised via Facebook.

However, that money, originally intended for the Trustee for New South Wales Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donation Fund, is still lying dormant some two months later, as the allocation of the funds is being discussed between Barber, her legal team, and the Rural Fire Service Trust.

Confusion between recipients
As Barber’s fundraiser began to gain popularity and the donation numbers spiked earlier this year, Barber seemed to change her focus as to what the funds should be used for. The Daily Telegraph reported that Barber said the funds should be used to support South Australian and Victorian firefighting organisations, the Red Cross and for the widows of firefighters who died battling the flames.

But, according to Sonia Hickey of NSW Courts and Sydney Criminal Lawyers, there are some legal restrictions as to where the donation money can be spent.

“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,” Hickey said.

Barber’s Facebook fundraiser page plainly lays out that the money being donated on it is being given to the Trustee for New South Wales Rural Fire Services & Brigades Donation Fund, headed by the state-run Rural Fire Service (RFS), which is legally obligated to follow these regulations.

The major predicament in this messy situation is that some people believe that a portion of those who donated through the Facebook page were under the impression that the money was going toward bushfire relief and firefighters in general because of its popularity and the popularity of Barber.

Cy Près
A spokesperson from the FRS told Business Insider Australia: “We’ve been working with Celeste’s team, as well as the companies which conducted the fundraising and collection of donations online, to work out how the funds can be distributed but at this stage the options are very limited.”

Legal solutions are being ironed out by Barber’s team and the case could go as far as the NSW Supreme Court where they would seek a cy près doctrine. A cy près doctrine allows the court to amend the terms of a charitable trust as closely as possible to the original intention of the settlor to prevent the trust from failing, if the original objective of the settlor’s trust becomes impossible, impracticable, or illegal to perform.

This case serves as a reminder to always read the fine print, even when it comes to charity.


City Hub‘s previous bushfire coverage:

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