Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Prasanna Balasundaram

A passionate belief in the transformative power of access to meaningful justice and his dedication to providing law students with a rich, varied legal experience have led to two major University of Toronto awards for Prasanna Balasundaram, director of Downtown Legal Services (DLS). He is the recipient of both the 2024 Chancellor's Leadership Award (Distinguished Leader) and the 2024 Joan E. Foley Quality of Student Experience Award.

Established in 1999, the Chancellor’s Leadership Award winners demonstrate outstanding leadership and significantly advance the University’s mission to foster an academic community in which the learning and scholarship of every member may flourish. The Distinguished Leader is a staff member or librarian who demonstrates leadership excellence and contributes significantly to their own Faculty/ division/campus. It comes with a $1,500 prize.

The Joan E. Foley Quality of Student Experience Award is a $1,000 prize presented annually by the University of Toronto Alumni Association (UTAA) to a student, faculty or administrative staff member who has made a distinctive and lasting contribution to enhancing the quality of the undergraduate or graduate student experience at the University of Toronto. 

Balasundaram, a first-generation lawyer, joined DLS in 2013 as a clinical supervisor and took on the role of director in 2021. As director, Balasundaram oversees the Faculty of Law’s leading public interest clinic for low-income clients.

“His work at DLS is rooted in a thorough understanding of the challenges faced by those at the intersection of multiple oppressions, such as poverty, race, gender, and ability” wrote Brittany Twiss, Assistant Dean, JD, Program at the Faculty of Law. “He recognizes that the law can disproportionately affect the lives of marginalized communities, and his efforts have consistently been focused on providing access to justice to those who need it the most.”

Alumnus Luke McRae noted, “Prasanna is still the one I call when I am presented with a difficult case. His love of thorny facts and hopeless cases has transformed the refugee/immigration division into a hub of legal innovation and advocacy. … He is at once a lawyer and activist, and is well-deserving of recognition for his outstanding contributions to DLS, to the students he has trained and the clients he serves.”

During his tenure with DLS, Balasundaram has mentored more than 100 students directly. Currently, his focus is broader, but the student experience is still top of mind.

“As a clinical supervisor, Prasanna balances a mix of strong leadership and approachability, ensuring that students are constantly challenged and engaged,” wrote alumna Roxana Parsa, who continues to practise public interest law. … Prasanna’s passion for the field of refugee and immigration law is also clearly based in a strong vision of human rights and systemic justice. …  It was inspiring to work with someone who applied a creative lens to the ways law can be used in human rights advocacy.”

Alumna Maia Rotman added, “I have long admired Prasanna's approach to his legal practice. He distinguishes himself through a steadfast commitment to human rights, and underscoring his work is a reminder that effective lawyering can bring positive social change. In my current position as a refugee and immigration lawyer, I am often reminded of his advice that if a legal decision feels wrong on a human level, I should try my best to challenge it.”

Balasundaram is dedicated to making DLS the best clinic possible for both student and clients.

“DLS can serve as a launching pad for legal careers, especially in fields underserved by Legal Aid,” he said. “I want to invest in these students and ensure they grow. … And when you have a good day at the office, you have changed someone’s life and I can’t think of a better feeling than that.”

University Professor and Dean Jutta Brunnée, James Marshall Tory Dean’s Chair, said, “We are fortunate to have such a passionate, thoughtful advocate, leader and educator as director of DLS. His work with our students, the community and in the legal world extends his impact far beyond the U of T campus boundaries.”

About the Awards of Excellence

Throughout its rich history, the University of Toronto has striven to promote and recognize excellence among its community members. The University of Toronto Alumni Association (UTAA) has played an integral role in furthering this mission through its longstanding support of distinguished awards programs that acknowledge outstanding faculty, staff, librarians, and students.

The prestigious Awards of Excellence program dates back to 1921 with the creation of the John H. Moss Scholarship, awarded to outstanding student leaders. In 1990 the Faculty Award and the Chancellor’s Award were added to the program. Since 1990, seven more distinct awards or scholarships recognizing exceptional students, faculty, librarians and administrative staff members of the University have been launched; most recently, the President's Excellence Award.

Though the criteria differ for each award, recipients all share a commitment to enhancing the university experience of their peers and leave a significant impact on the University through their efforts.