The Supreme Court has today delivered judgment providing judicial advice to the trustees of the NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund. Simply put, the trustees (being the people in charge of distributing the fund) asked the Supreme Court for binding advice to determine whether they could use the funds raised by Celeste Barber’s campaign outside the NSW RFS. The trustees also sought clarification as to whether they could use the funds for supporting rural firefighters injured whilst firefighting and the families of firefighters killed, providing physical & mental health training and counselling services to firefighters, and meet the costs of firefighters to attend courses to improve their skills.
The Court determined that the trustees could use the donated funds for all these purposes except for distributing the money to other charities or rural fire services in Australia to assist in providing relief to any people or animals affected by the bushfires.
The case arose after Celeste Barber’s fundraising effort during the Australian bushfires in Summer 2019-20 raised $51 million. The beneficiary of the fundraiser was the NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund which is established by a trust deed, known as the RFS Trust Deed. The RSF Fund is a charity with a specific purpose to provide RFS Brigades for purchasing equipment, providing training and meeting administrative expenses associated with their volunteer-based fire and emergency service activities.
Due to the quantum of the funds donated and an understanding by some of the people who donated funds that the funds would be used for diverse needs including people and animals from all over Australia, the trustees looked to use the funds more widely.
There is a power for trustees to apply to the Court for advice on how they should or can administer a trust. The trustees went to the Court and asked whether the trustees of the RFS Fund were permitted to use some of the donated funds that were not directly related to the purpose of the RFS Fund. The trustees applied to the Court to determine whether it was permissible for them to use the donated funds for:
- paying money to other charities or rural fire services, whether in New South Wales or other Australian states or territories, to assist in providing relief to persons and animals affected by bushfires;
- setting up or contributing to a fund to support rural firefighters injured while firefighting or the families of rural firefighters killed while firefighting;
- physical health training and resources,
- mental health training and resources, or
- trauma counselling services,
- to volunteer firefighters who require them in connection with performing the functions of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service; or
- setting up or contributing to a fund to meet the costs for volunteer rural firefighters to attend and complete courses that improve skills related to the volunteer-based fire and emergency services activities of the brigades.
From an analysis of the areas that the trustees were considering to distribute the funds above it can be seen that most of the proposed areas were at least loosely within the RFS Trust’s purpose except for the payment of money to other charities and rural fire services.
The Court found that all the proposed uses of the funds were permissible other than paying the money to other charities or rural fire services.
The Court found that though some of the people who donated to the fundraiser expected the funds to be used more widely than the NSW RFS, the fact that the funds were raised for the purpose of being donated to the RFS Trust, they could only be used by the trust as per the purpose of the trust.
After analysing the proposed purposes of the donated funds, the Court found that it was permissible to use the funds to:
- support firefighters injured while firefight and the families of those firefighters killed;
- provide physical & mental health training and counselling services to firefighters; and
- set up a fund to meet the costs of firefighters attending and completing courses to improve their firefighting and emergency service skills.
The Court determined that all these areas were within the purpose of the RFS Trust and therefore permissible uses for the donated funds.
In contrast, the Court unsurprisingly found that providing the funds to other charities or organisations other than the NSW RFS would not be permitted as such a use of the funds are well outside the purpose of the RFS Trust. The decision confirms that charities and trusts will be bound by the documents that govern their operation and even where it may be preferable to use the funds for broader operations, it will be beyond the power of the charity or trusts. The Court did leave open the possibility for an individual donator to raise a claim that they were donating the funds for broader use than the RFS Trust purposes.
The full judgment of the Court can be found at In the matter of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund; Application of Macdonald & Or  NSWSC 604.