Celeste loses fight over $51m donations


The NSW Supreme Court has handed down its decision on the mammoth $51.3 million raised by Celeste Barber, declaring the funds must stay with the NSW Rural Fire Service.

Supreme Court Justice Michael Slattery said the massive sum, which had already been transferred by Paypal into the RFS Trust, could only be used on the volunteer organisation and could not be passed on to other charitable causes.

"Some donors may have intended or hoped that the money they donated would be used for purposes beyond those which the court has now advised are permissible," Supreme Court Justice Slattery told the court.

"Despite the (RFS's) wish to honour those intentions or hopes, the law provides principles that make sure a degree of certainty in the application of trust funds, including charitable trust funds, and the court has applied these principles, and giving its advice and these reasons."

Celeste Barber.
Celeste Barber.


Barber in January 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 boasts 7.1 million followers on Instagram - raised $51.3 million, the largest fundraising 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 as well as 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 the NSW RFS and brigades donations fund chairman Andrew MacDonald 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 benefiting 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 and interstate rural fire brigades.

Court documents reveal a high level of confusion among people who donated. While many posted on Barbers' 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," the judge said on Monday.