Celeste Barber’s $51m bushfire fund decision within days
The legal deadlock over how to spend more than $51 million raised by comedian Celeste Barber during Australia's summer bushfire crisis will be broken within a week.
The NSW Rural Fire Service wants to help victims by passing some money to other charities while also using it to support injured fireys and the families of heroes who lost their lives.
But the RFS fears the cash bonanza can only be spent on equipment and training under strict rules, and on Monday sought advice from the NSW Supreme Court.
In January Ms Barber mobilised her 7 million Instagram followers globally to donate the record-breaking sum to the RFS, and the body's barrister said it is "enormously grateful" for their goodwill.
"Ms Barber's appeal was obviously a spectacular success and the donors, citizens of this state, citizens of Australia and more broadly citizens throughout the world were extremely generous in a time of considerable need," Jeremy Giles SC said.
"Our clients will, if within power, give anxious consideration to a fund for injured or fallen volunteer firefighters if to do so were in their power."
Mr Giles said the RFS and Brigades Donations Fund trust want to honour the wishes of Ms Barber, who pledged to help victims from fire-ravaged communities and animals by passing some of the staggering sum onto WIRES, the Red Cross and interstate brigades.
But rules governing the trust dictate that any money in the kitty must only be used to buy and maintain firefighting equipment, provide training and resources, and cover administrative expenses.
The NSW attorney general agrees with the RFS that some of the funds may be spent on physical and mental health training, trauma counselling and other programs to support individual members.
The RFS suspects that relatives of 14 fallen firefighters, or volunteers hurt in the line of duty who need rehabilitation or compensation, cannot be supported with the money under the guidelines.
But the attorney general believes such assistance could be used to encourage more volunteers and thus could technically be permitted.
"This case is not about the worthiness of possible allocations of trust funds. All of them are worthy," barrister Peter Singleton said.
Both the RFS and the attorney general believe the money is not allowed to be shared with other charities or interstate brigades.
But Justice Michael Slattery noted the NSW RFS was assisted by interstate and overseas brigades during the unprecedented blazes, some of whom also died.
Ms Barber hoped to help people whose homes burned down, and the RFS also said the cash could be spent on temporary accommodation, food and water for victims, "but only during and in the immediate aftermath of fires."
Justice Slattery hopes to deliver judgment by early next week at the latest.
"I know the funds are there and people want to use them, that's obviously a priority," he said.
Ms Barber's online campaign went viral and received donations from around the world, including from Hollywood's elite.
The 38-year-old's initial fundraising target was $30,000 but within four days Ms Barber had raised $33 million, which then swelled to $52 million - the largest single fundraiser in the history of Facebook.
Ms Barber, whose in-laws lost their home, was hailed for having more impact on the bushfire crisis than most politicians.
It culminated in the Tweed Heads local hosting the huge Fire Fight Australia concert in February.