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Charlotte O'Brien



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

Professor and YLS Equality, Diversity & Inclusion 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 the emerging discipline of Withdrawal Law and retained EU law; migration justice and human rights; EU social law and citizenship; and social security law. My work focuses on bringing together doctrinal and empirical study, in particular developing new socio-legal research methods to capture and analyse law in action.

I have co-authored reports for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the EU Commission; presented evidence to the European Parliament; the All Party Parliamentary Groups on the Rule of Law, and on Citizens’ Rights; the London Assembly; the House of Commons Select Committee on Exiting the European Union; and the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee. I have further submitted evidence to the Joint Human Rights Select Committee; the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Migration and on Poverty; and the European Affairs Committee of the House of Lords.  

I lead the EU Rights & Brexit Hub – a project in advice-led ethnography, to give advice to organisations working with EU nationals and documenting evidence of problems encountered. We work within the Baroness Hale Legal Clinic, and we began as part of an interdisciplinary project funded by the ESRC. We have contributed to strategic litigation, supporting claimants and/or interveners in high profile test cases – working with the3million; the AIRE Centre; the Child Poverty Action Group; and 4-5 Grays Inn Square Chambers.

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.

In November 2022, I was awarded the Legal Academic of the Year prize, in the Inspirational Women in Law Awards in recognition of ‘pioneering and inspirational work in the legal academic field’. 




  • Withdrawal Law
  • 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
  • Migration justice and human rights
  • Theories of equality and fundamental rights
  • Social security law, policy and reform
  • Feminist and sociolegal analyses of all the above

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


Withdrawal Law

In the wake of Brexit, millions of people’s rights to reside, rights to equal treatment, and access public services, and rights to family reunification, are all subject to this new, underexplored species of law, and will be for the rest of their lifetimes, and the lifetimes of their future children. However, mechanisms of enforcement are unclear and untested; it gets tangled with multiple parallel immigration regimes; and the processes for monitoring the implementation of Withdrawal Law – for EU nationals in the UK, and UK nationals in the EU – suffer from transparency, accessibility and accountability deficits. I am working on ways to analyse implementation; to identify problems of interpretation; and to test this new branch of law in action. I have contributed to several test cases on correct interpretation of Withdrawal Agreement provisions. With Dr Sylvia de Mars, I co-authored a report on the provisions affecting people crossing the Ireland/Northern Ireland border for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission: Frontier Workers and their Families: Rights after Brexit | Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (

Immigration law, human rights and social security 

This work focuses the relationship between immigration law and policy, and the management (and creation and amplification) of poverty through social security law. It explores the role of xenophobia in law-making, considering the othering of EU nationals; the dehumanisation of migrants in general, and the demonising of asylum seekers in particular. In 2023 I produced this submission to the Human Rights Select Committee consultation on the Illegal Migration Bill. With Dr Alice Welsh, I submitted a response to the Professional Experience consultation for the APPG on Migration and the APPG on Poverty’s joint inquiry into The Effects of UK Immigration, Asylum and Refugee Policy on Poverty in November 2023.  

The EU Rights and Brexit Hub 2020 to 2023

A major ESRC Governance After Brexit project. We set up a nationwide legal action research hub – the first of its kind. From within the Baroness Hale Legal clinic, we offered second tier advice and support to organisations working with EU/EEA nationals, and documented the problems encountered in a parallel ethnography. The team included: Dr Alice Welsh; Co-Investigators Professor Simon Parker, (University of York, Department of Politics and International Relations) and Madeleine Sumption (COMPAS, University of Oxford), and research fellows Dr John Evemy, Denis Kierans and Marina Fernandez Reino.

We produced parliamentary briefings, drafted parliamentary questions, gave evidence to the London Assembly, which formed the basis for a letter from the Assembly to the Mayor of London

Although the ESRC project has concluded, we are continuing to receive cases through the clinic, give advice and analyse the problems encountered. 


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 (watch the video of the session). 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 2013 to 2017

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

  • O’Brien, C. ‘Bringing EU Law back down to Earth’ (2022) 18:4 International Journal of Law in Context 450-460.
  • de Mars S, O'Brien C. “Inevitably Diminished: Rights of Frontier Workers in Northern Ireland after Brexit” 2022, 73(S2), Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly 119-147.
  • O’Brien, C. ‘The Great EU Citizenship Illusion Exposed: Equal Treatment Rights Evaporate for the Vulnerable’ (CG v The Department for Communities in Northern Ireland), (2021), 6, EL Rev, 801-817.
  • O’Brien, C. '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.
  • O'Brien, C. ‘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 (2nd ed, Hart, 2021).
  • O’Brien, C. Acte cryptique? Zambrano, welfare rights, and underclass citizenship in the tale of the missing preliminary reference, (2019) 56(6) CML Rev 1697-1732.
  • Dougan, M. O'Brien, C. 'Reflections on law and impact in the light of Brexit' (2019) 53(2) The Law Teacher 197-211.
  • 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.
  • O'Brien, C. "Unity in Adversity: EU Citizenship, Social Justice and the Cautionary Tale of the UK (Oxford: Hart, 2017)
    • won the Socio-Legal Studies Association Best Book prize 2019 and was shortlisted for the BBC Thinking Allowed Ethnography Award 2018.
  • O'Brien, C. 'Commentary on Zambrano' in H.. Stalford, K. Hollingsworth & S. Gilmore Rewriting Children's Rights Judgments: From Academic Vision to New Practice  (Oxford: Hart, 2017).
  • O'Brien, C. '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.
  • O'Brien, C. 'The ECJ sacrifices EU citizenship in vain: Commission v UK' 54(1) CML Rev (2017) 209-244.
  • O'Brien, C. 'Civis capitalist sum: class as the new guiding principle of free free movement rights' (2016) 53(4) Common Market Law Review 937-977.
  • O'Brien, C. '"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.
  • O'Brien, C. '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.
  • O'Brien, C. 'The EU Rights Project' (2015) 167, Adviser, 8-11.
  • O'Brien, C 'Driving Down Disability Equality?' (2014) 21(4) Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law 724-738.
  • O'Brien, C 'Politically acceptable poverty', (2014) 149, Poverty: Journal of the Child Poverty Action Group 15-17.
  • O'Brien, C '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).
  • O'Brien, C ‘I trade, therefore I am: legal personhood in the European Union’ (2013) 50(6) Common Market Law Review 1643-1684.
  • O'Brien, C '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).
  • O'Brien, C '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.
  • O'Brien, C ‘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.
  • O'Brien, C ‘European Union Law’ in Integrating Socio-Legal Studies into the law curriculum C. Hunter (ed) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
  • O'Brien, C '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.
  • O'Brien, C ‘Equality's false summits: new varieties of disability discrimination, "excessive" equal treatment and economically constricted horizons’ (2011) 36(1) European Law Review 26-50.
  • O'Brien, C ‘Case C-310/08 Ibrahim, Case C-480/08 Teixiera’ (2011) 48(1) Common Market Law Review 203-225.
  • O'Brien, C ‘Social blind spots and monocular policy making: the ECJ’s migrant worker model’ (2009) 46(4) Common Market Law Review 1107-1141.
  • O'Brien, C ‘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.
  • O'Brien, C ‘Case C-212/05 Hartmann, Case C-213/05 Geven, Case C-287/05 Hendrix’, (2008) 45(2) Common Market Law Review 499-514.



I have had a number of learning and teaching roles:

  • subject lead for the EU components of the Foundations in law modules
  • director of the YLS law clinic
  • clinic case supervisor 
  • co-lead immigration law and policy


I supervise LLM dissertations and PhDs.

External activities


  • Analytical expert, European Commission's Free Movement and Social Security network of experts – MoveS/Fressco
  • 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


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 <>

Media coverage

Selected blogs and news articles

Contact details

Professor Charlotte O'Brien
York Law School

Tel: +44 (0)1904 32 5808