I’ve written on the massive fundraising that was lead by Celeste Barber and led to a $51m donation to the NSW Rural Fire Service Brigades and Donations Fund – see
- Disaster fundraising for government or charity? (January 5, 2020);
- Diverting Facebook donations (January 6, 2020);
- Further complicating the issue of diverting Facebook donations, and perhaps an ‘out’
(January 7, 2020);
- Donations to RFS trust on hold (January 13, 2020);
- Trust operations 101 (January 16, 2020); and
- RFS and donated funds (January 24, 2020).
In those various posts I suggested that the three ways that I (and colleagues) could see to distribute the money across the nation and across causes was (Trust operations 101 (January 16, 2020)) either
- A special Act of Parliament
- An order from the Supreme Court (but on what basis I don’t know as the trust has not failed and the deed is not ambiguous)
- Wind up the trust and allow the trustees under cl 11 to redistribute the funds (see Donations to RFS trust on hold (January 13, 2020)).
There have been reports that the RFS are intending to approach the Supreme Court (see Lachlan Moffet Gray, ‘RFS to join Celeste Barber in court to release bushfire donations‘ The Australian (online) (February 21, 2020); Sam Clench, ‘Celeste Barber reassures donors that ‘really serious’ effort is being made to release bushfire funds‘ News.com.au (February 21, 2020)).
Today Greens MP David Shoebridge announced that he was introducing a Bill to the NSW Parliament to give the trustees a one-off dispensation to allow them to redistribute some of the $52m. You can read details of his proposal in his media release:
David Shoebridge, Media Release: Fixing the $52 million RFS donations mess (February 25, 2020).
Interestingly his press release says ‘Celeste Barber, who made the call for these record donations has indicated she will bring an application to the Supreme Court to address this problem.’ I cannot see that Ms Barber would have any standing to bring an action in the Supreme Court. She is one of several million donors. The applicant will have to be the RFS trustees. As reported in the News.com.au article (above, emphasis added) ‘The next step is for the RFS to seek clarification from the NSW Supreme Court on how the money can be used.’
Will any of this work? Who knows.
The Supreme Court would normally get involved if a trust fails, eg money is raised to pay for someone’s medical care but they die before it can be spent, or money is raised for a specific project and more money than is required is raised. Here there is no failure, the trust and its beneficiaries (the RFS and its brigades) still exist and even if Celeste Barber had an original goal, the RFS trust was not asking for a sum for a special project. They can spend the full amount consistently with their trust deed. I’m not sure on what basis the supreme court could or would make orders allowing a variation in the way the trust money is to be spent.
With respect to the Act of Parliament Mr Shoebridge will need to get the numbers to pass his Bill. I cannot say if that will happen; and some may say this is a problem that doesn’t need fixing. The money was donated to the RFS trust so let it go where the donors elected to send it when they pressed ‘donate’.
There is still a long way to go to see if the RFS will be allowed to meet a promise that it did not make and honour a promise Ms Barber’s was in no position to make, to ensure “… that Victoria gets some, that South Australia gets some, also families of people who have died in these fires, the wildlife…’