Celeste Barber’s $51m bushfire fund cannot be given to other charities, court rules

Comedian Celeste Barber has hailed NSW firefighters as “rockstars like no others”, while looking on the bright side following a Supreme Court decision on how $51 million she raised for bushfire relief can be spent.

A court has ruled that Celeste Barber’s multimillion-dollar bushfire appeal can go to injured firefighters but not other charities, with the comedian conceding that she is not “a lawmaker.”

The record-breaking Facebook campaign raked in $51 million for the NSW Rural Fire Service in January, with Ms Barber telling donors the money would be split with other charities and interstate brigades.

But a Supreme Court judge has ruled the cash bonanza must only be spent within the NSW RFS.

“They cannot use the donated money to give to other charities, or to donate interstate, or to help people or animals affected by bushfires,” Justice Michael Slattery said on Monday.

Ms Barber said she had hoped, “because it was such a big and ‘unprecedented’ amount,” that the money could have been shared elsewhere.

“Turns out that studying acting at university does not make me a lawmaker,” she said in a statement.

Ms Barber, whose family was affected by fires in Eden, said the staggering sum will now stay in the “very capable, very grateful hands” of the RFS, and thanked people around the world who contributed.

“From the kids who smashed their piggy banks open, to the single mums that gave what they could. To everyone from all walks of life that heard us and helped us, whether it was a hand full of gold coins or a big fat cheque. This is all because of you guys,” she said.

“My family say thank you. They felt abandoned and were terrified in the face of all this and you guys made them feel less alone, this is the power of people.”

Justice Slattery ruled that some of the funds may be spent on equipment, physical and mental health courses, trauma counselling and other programs to support individual NSW RFS fireys.

Ms Barber said this would be used to “train up more volunteers and help communities be better prepared for the ongoing threat of bushfires here in our beautiful Australia.”

“To our volunteer firefighters, you are rockstars like no others. You will never know the depth and breadth of our gratitude,” she said.

Relatives of NSW volunteers who are killed and those hurt in the line of duty who need compensation or rehabilitation can also benefit from the money under the guidelines.

“The existence of a fund to provide longer term compensation for injuries suffered by firefighters, or to support the families of deceased firefighters is more likely to encourage volunteers,” Justice Slattery said.

The donations can be put towards physical and mental health training along with other programs to support NSW firefighters. Picture: Darren Leigh Roberts
The donations can be put towards physical and mental health training along with other programs to support NSW firefighters.

The NSW RFS wanted to honour Barber’s wishes to help victims from fire-ravaged communities and animals by passing some of the money onto wildlife welfare group WIRES, the Red Cross and interstate brigades.

Justice Slattery has previously noted the NSW RFS was assisted by interstate and overseas brigades during the unprecedented blazes, some of whom died.

In the judgment, he said those fireys were “integrated into the command structure of the brigades and it would be permissible for their administrative expenses to be met.”

But the judge said the funds are not allowed to be shared generally with other brigades or charities under laws governing the Brigades Donations Fund.

“Some donors may have intended or hoped that the money they donated would be used for purposes beyond those which the court has advised are permissible,” Justice Slattery said.

“The various public and perhaps private statements made by Ms Barber or any of the donors do not bind the trustees’ application of the funds.”

A burnt out property in Cobargo on the NSW south coast. Picture: James Gourley
A burnt out property in Cobargo on the NSW south coast.
NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons during the bushfire response in January. Picture: Jeremy Ng
NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons during the bushfire response in January.

The judge ordered both the NSW RFS and the attorney general’s legal costs be paid out of the fund, however NSW RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers stressed none of the charity money would be used to pay that body’s lawyers.

He welcomed the ruling, saying $20 million has already been allocated to immediate equipment needs including respiratory protection and helmets, while the RFS would begin consulting with injured fireys and the relatives of six NSW volunteers who lost their lives during the catastrophic summer fires.

Mr Rogers said Ms Barber acted with the best of intentions and “genuinely was trying to do the right thing.”

“We’ll keep reporting to her team and the general public about what happens with that money,” he said.

Ms Barber mobilised her 7 million Instagram followers for the online campaign that went viral and secured donations from Hollywood’s elite.

The 38-year-old’s initial target was $30,000 but within days that swelled to $51 million — which Justice Slattery praised as a “spectacular success.”

Ms Barber, whose in-laws lost their home during the blazes, soon vented frustration that raising a huge amount of money also attracted “a f*** tonne of people telling you what you should do with it”.

“It’s going to the RFS and it will be distributed out. So I’m going to make sure that Victoria gets some, that South Australia gets some, also families of people who have died in these fires, the wildlife …” Ms Barber posted on Instagram at the time.

The fundraiser culminated in the Tweed Heads local hosting the huge Fire Fight Australia concert in February.

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