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Charlotte O'Brien



Professor Charlotte O'Brien
BA (Cantab), LLM (Leeds), PhD (Liverpool), PGCAP (York)

Professor and Equality and Diversity Champion

I joined York Law School in 2009, having completed an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Liverpool.

I have degrees in Law and Social and Political Sciences, and many years of experience of working and volunteering in Citizens Advice offices. I specialise in EU social law and citizenship, and both UK and EU welfare law. My work focuses on bringing together doctrinal and empirical study, in particular developing new socio-legal research methods to study EU law. 

I am the Principal Investigator in the ESRC-funded EU Rights & Brexit Hub – a project in advice-led ethnography, working with Alice Welsh to give advice to organisations working with EU nationals throughout the UK, and documenting evidence of problems and discrimination encountered. It is an interdisciplinary project; our co-investigators are Professor Simon Parker, from the Department of Politics at the University of York, and Madeleine Sumption, from the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, the Department of Anthropology in the University of Oxford.

I previously led the EU Rights Project, another legal action research project, funded with an ESRC Future Research Leaders award. This led to work cited in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the UK Supreme Court, and the Court of Justice of the European Union. 



  • EU social law, UK public law and human rights law
  • EU policies on social security coordination, migration, citizenship, labour law and asylum
  • The implications of Brexit for women and children
  • The implications of Brexit for EU nationals' rights
  • Theories of equality and fundamental rights
  • Welfare law, policy and reform
  • Feminist and sociolegal analyses of all the above

PhD: I welcome applications from prospective research students in these and relatsupervisioned areas; please get in touch if you would like to discuss a proposal.


  • The EU Rights & Brexit

This is a major ESRC Governance After Brexit project. We have set up a nationwide legal action research hub – the first of its kind. From within the York Law School Legal clinic, we offer second tier advice and support to organisations working with EU/EEA nationals, and document the problems encountered in a parallel ethnography. Dr Alice Welsh is a full-time research fellow working at the clinic. We are working with Co-Investigators Professor Simon Parker, (University of York, Department of Politics) and Madeleine Sumption (COMPAS, University of Oxford), and research fellows Dr John Evemy, Denis Kierans and Marina Fernandez Reino.

The project began in mid-2020 to mid-2023. We have produced parliamentary briefings and given evidence to the London Assembly, which formed the basis for a letter from the Assembly to the Mayor of London.

  • Brexit

Prior to the start of the current project, I was able to contribute to the debates and analysis of Brexit documents and processes. I was invited to give evidence on the EU Withdrawal Bill at an oral session of the house of Commons Exiting the European Union Committee. The video of the session is available here. My evidence was cited on the floor of the House of Commons (by several MPs), and was drawn upon heavily in the final report of the House of Commons Exiting the European Union Committee on the European Union (Withdrawal Bill).

I have given presentations to the London Assembly, the Public Law Project conference, and the Hart Judicial Review conference on Brexit, free movement and EU nationals' rights.

  • The EU rights project

In 2012 I was awarded an ESRC future research leaders grant for the EU Rights Project which ran until mid 2017. It was an innovative legal action research project, in which I worked with Craven & Harrogate Districts Citizens Advice to set up a specialist advice and advocacy service on EU welfare claims. While advising and representing clients, I conducted a parallel study of administrative obstacles we encountered. This 'advice led ethnography' is a new way to interrogate EU law. It combines socio-legal studies with theoretical, philosophical and historical work on EU social law. It yielded very rich data, revealing and challenging injustices that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

The major output from the project is the monograph, Unity in Adversity: EU Citizenship, Social Justice and the Cautionary Tale of the UK (Oxford: Hart, 2017). which draws upon the case studies to demonstrate political, legal and administrative obstacles to justice faced by EU nationals in the UK. The book won the Socio-Legal Studies Association Best Book prize in 2019, and was shortlisted for the BBC Thinking Allowed Ethnography Award.

'Doctrinal mastery. Intellectual rigour. Conceptual depth. Empirical enrichment. O'Brien's landmark text offers its readers all of these qualities.' Professor Michael Dougan, University of Liverpool.


Selected publications

  • Between the devil and the deep blue sea: Vulnerable EU citizens cast adrift in the UK post-Brexit (2021), 58(2), CML Rev 431-470

  • Acte cryptique? Zambrano, welfare rights, and underclass citizenship in the tale of the missing preliminary reference, (2019) 56(6) CML Rev 1697-1732

  • O'Brien, C. Done Because We Are Too Menny” The Two-Child Rule Promotes Poverty, Invokes a Narrative of Welfare Decadence, and Abandons Children’s Rights (2018) 26(4) IJCR 700-739 

  • New monograph - a socio-legal study of EU law in action: O'Brien, C., "Unity in Adversity: EU Citizenship, Social Justice and the Cautionary Tale of the UK (Oxford: Hart, 2017)

  • C. O'Brien 'Commentary on Zambrano' in H.. Stalford, K. Hollingsworth & S. Gilmore Rewriting Children's Rights Judgments: From Academic Vision to New Practice  (Oxford: Hart, 2017)

  • C.O'Brien, 'Union citizenship and disability: restricted access to equality rights and the attitudinal model of disability' in D. Kochenov (ed)EU Citizenship and Federalism: The Role of Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2017) p. 509-539

  • C. O'Brien., The ECJ sacrifices EU citizenship in vain: Commission v UK, 54(1) CML Rev (2017) 209-244

  • C. O'Brien "Civis capitalist sum: class as the new guiding principle of free free movement rights" (2016) 53(4) Common Market Law Review 937-977

  • C. O'Brien '"Hand-to-mouth” citizenship: decision time for the UK Supreme Court on the substance of Zambrano rights, EU citizenship and equal treatment' (2016) 38(2) Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 228-245

  • C. O'Brien 'The pillory, the precipice and the slippery slope: the profound effects of the UK’s legal reform programme targeting EU migrants' (2015) 37(1) Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 111-136

  • C.O'Brien 'The EU Rights Project' (2015) 167, Adviser, 8-11

  • C.O'Brien 'Driving Down Disability Equality?' (2014) 21(4) Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law 724-738

  • C.O'Brien 'Politically acceptable poverty', (2014) 149, Poverty: Journal of the Child Poverty Action Group, 15-17

  • C. O'Brien 'Article 26 - Integration of Persons with Disabilities' in S. Peers, T. Hervey, J. Kenner & A. Ward (eds) The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights: a Commentary (Hart, 2014)

  • C.O'Brien ‘I trade, therefore I am: legal personhood in the European Union’ (2013) 50(6) Common Market Law Review 1643-1684

  • C. O'Brien 'From Safety Nets and Carrots to Trampolines and Sticks: National Uses of the EU as Both Menace and Model to Help Neoliberalize Welfare Policy' in D. Sciek (ed) The EU Economic and Social Model in Crisis: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Ashgate, 2013)

  • C.O'Brien 'A Stage, a Spotlight and an Unwritten Script: Frontier Zones and Intersectional Citizens' in N. Nic Shuibhne, M. Dougan & E. Spaventa (eds) Empowerment and Disempowerment of the European Citizen (Hart Publishing, 2012) 73-98

  • C.O'Brien ‘Confronting the care penalty: the case for extending reasonable adjustment rights along the disability/care continuum’ (2012) 34(1) Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 5-30

  • C.O'Brien ‘European Union Law’ in Integrating Socio-Legal Studies into the law curriculum C. Hunter (ed) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

  • C. O'Brien 'Drudges, dupes and do-gooders? Competing notions of 'value' in the Union's approach to volunteers' (2011) 1(1) European Journal of Social Law 49-75

  • C. O'Brien ‘Equality's false summits: new varieties of disability discrimination, "excessive" equal treatment and economically constricted horizons’ (2011) 36(1) European Law Review 26-50

  • C. O'Brien ‘Case C-310/08 Ibrahim, Case C-480/08 Teixiera’ (2011) 48(1) Common Market Law Review 203-225

  • C. O'Brien ‘Social blind spots and monocular policy making: the ECJ’s migrant worker model’ (2009) 46(4) Common Market Law Review 1107-1141

  • C. O'Brien ‘Real links, abstract rights and false alarms: the relationship between the ECJ’s ‘real link’ case law and national solidarity’ (2008) 33(5) European Law Review  643-665

  • C. O'Brien ‘Case C-212/05 Hartmann, Case C-213/05 Geven, Case C-287/05 Hendrix’, (2008) 45(2) Common Market Law Review 499-514



In the past few years I have had a number of learning & teaching roles:

  • subject lead for the EU components of the Foundations in law modules

  • director of the YLS law clinic

  • clinic supervisor on cases

External activities


  • Analytical expert, European Commission's Free Movement and Social Security network of experts.
  • Fressco reports: 

O’Brien, Spaventa and De Coninck, “The concept of worker under Article 45 TFEU and certain non-standard forms of employment”, FreSsco Comparative Report, European Commission (2015) available at <>.

Overmeiren, O'Brien, Spaventa, Jorens & Schulte "The notions of obstacle and discrimination under EU law on free movement of workers" Fressco Analytical report, European Commission (2014) available at <>

  • Cases Editor, Journal of Social Security Law
  • Trustee, Welfare Benefit Unit
  • Peer reviewer for the ESRC
  • Peer reviews, e.g.: European Law Review; European Journal of Social Security Law; Routledge; Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law
  • Fellow of the Higher Education Academy

Media coverage

Blogs and news articles

Contact details

Professor Charlotte O'Brien
York Law School

Tel: +44 (0)1904 32 5808