At comedian Celeste Barber’s request, people from around the world donated $51 million to the NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund. Donors and Ms Barber were shocked to find that if you donate money to a charity, it can only use the money for the purposes for which it was established and not for whatever purpose donors may later think is a good idea. The Fund went to the Supreme Court to get guidance on what they could do with the money and the Court confirmed that they could only use it for the purposes for which they receive funds. Greens MP David Shoebridge introduced a Bill to the NSW Parliament to allow the trustees to spend money in ways that some donors may have intended but for which the trust was never established (see all the posts appearing here:

The latest step is that on Friday 31 June the NSW Legislative Assembly Portfolio Committee No. 5 handed down its report on the Bill. You can read the report here. The Committee made three recommendations; they are:

Recommendation 1

That the NSW Rural Fire Service establish a Rural Fire Service Volunteers Benevolent Fund, with this Fund administered cooperatively by the NSW Rural Fire Service, the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association and the Rural Fire Service Association, so that immediate support can be provided to volunteer firefighters who have been injured and/or who have lost their homes to fires during the course of their volunteer duties, and to the families of firefighters who have lost their lives.

Recommendation 2

That the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Trust allocate an initial start-up budget for said Benevolent Fund from any unallocated donated monies originating from the Ms Celeste Barber fund in the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Fund as at 31 July 2020.

Recommendation 3

That the Legislative Council proceed to debate the Rural Fires Amendment (NSW RFS and Brigades Donations Fund) Bill 2020, and that the committee comments and concerns identified by stakeholders as set out in this report be addressed during debate in the House

Recommendations 1 and 2 are not related to the Shoebridge Bill. The suggestion of a benevolent fund came from the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association (see [2.41]). The Supreme Court said that the trustees could they could use the donated funds for the purposes of ‘setting up or contributing to a fund to support rural firefighters injured while firefighting, or the families of rural firefighters killed while firefighting’ (see Judgment from the Supreme Court regarding Rural Fire Service Donations Fund (May 25, 2020) see also [1.13] of the Report). The court did not say that funds could be used for the benefit of firefighters who had lost their homes so I’m not sure why that is considered a permissible use. The Volunteer Fire Fighters Association did not provide written submissions nor is the extension – from ‘firefighters injured while firefighting’ to ‘firefighters who have been injured and/or who have lost their homes to fires’ is justified.

The first recommendation was directed to the RFS and the RFS could make those sort of payments, and the evidence is that it has done so (see [2.33] of the report). It is not clear to me, given the Supreme Court judgement how the trustees could put money into that fund other than for firefighters killed or injured, but not those that lost their homes. That may however been an over strict reading of the judgement so, for the sake of argument let us assume this would be a permissible use of the funds. On that assumption recommendations (1) and (2) are urging the RFS and the Trustees to ‘get on with it’.

As for the Bill itself it would, if passed allow the trustees wider discretion on how to use the money. You can read the Rural Fires Amendment (NSW RFS and Brigades Donations Fund) Bill 2020 (NSW) here. The key provision says:

Despite the terms of the deed, the trustees may pay or apply relevant trust money for the purpose of providing support or assistance to any one or more of the following—

(a) the families of volunteer rural fire fighters killed while providing rural fire services,

(b) volunteer rural fire fighters injured while providing rural fire services,

(c) people and organisations providing care to animals injured or displaced by bush fires,

(d) people and communities that are significantly affected by bush fires.

For the purpose of the Bill ‘relevant trust money means gifts or contributions received by or on behalf of the trust during the period commencing on 1 November 2019 and ending on 1 February 2020.’

The Committee noted arguments for and against the Bill including that the date range extended beyond Ms Barber’s fundraising efforts so would catch donations made by people who were not responding to her request. The Committee report was balanced giving arguments in favour for, and against the Bill. I won’t try to summarise them here, people can read the report if they are interested.

The final recommendation was that ‘the Legislative Council proceed to debate’ the Bill. That is very neutral. They could have recommended against any further progress of the Bill and I suppose that would have been the end of it. They did not do that but they do not recommend that the Bill be passed, only that it be debated so that the MPs can make their own decision based on the arguments for and against in the report, their own views and no doubt the views of those in their electorates.


Back on 16 January 2020 (see Trust operations 101) I said:

There may be ways to allow for a diversion of some of the $51m. Some suggested ones are:

  1. A special Act of Parliament
  2. 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)
  3. 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)).

I don’t think anyone would or has seriously suggested option 3. We’ve had a review by the Supreme Court and the advice from Justice Slattery. Now we’re at the stage of seeing whether the NSW Parliament will adopt option 1. This report is just a step along the way. Now we have to see whether the government will allow debate on the Bill and if they do then its up to the MPs to decide. There’s more to come.