Dickson was appointed to the Manitoba Court of Appeal in 1967. There, he missed the human drama of courtroom trials but welcomed the intellectual challenge of appellate work. He developed a clear and direct writing style. Although there were occasional flashes of the innovative judge he would later become, his carefully researched judgments generally followed established legal doctrine.
In 1973 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appointed Dickson to the Supreme Court of Canada. Dickson and his family moved to Ottawa to join an institution that was poorly understood by the Canadian public and frequently described as disappointing in the legal community. For the most part, the Court spent its time dealing with technical legal questions and resolving run-of-the-mill disputes. Most judges thought that their job was to apply precedents and the clear letter of the law, leaving questions of law reform and social justice to the elected legislatures. Judgments were written for a strictly legal audience; there was little scope for the consideration of the relevant historical, social, and political context. Broader issues of theory and policy were not confronted openly in judicial decision-making and the judges rarely strayed from traditional legal sources.
Yet, by the time Dickson retired as chief justice of Canada in 1990, the Court had become a major national institution, very much in the public eye and at the centre of political life in Canada. Scarcely a week seemed to pass without a front-page story on the Court, and Supreme Court judgments became familiar fodder for editorial-page writers. Under the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Court confronted extraordinarily difficult issues of human rights and social policy. Debates about fundamental rights and freedoms replaced routine personal injury and property disputes on its docket. In the process, the Court's audience expanded beyond lawyers and legal academics to the Canadian public at large. Its decisions had implications for all Canadians and were the subject of intense public debate. No longer was the Court criticized for being too cautious, narrow, and legalistic. By the time of Dickson's retirement, some observers were asking whether the Court had become too willing to play an active role in Canadian political life.
Brian Dickson was the leading figure in this transformation of the Supreme Court and Canadian law. After his early years at the Court, when he often deferred law reform to the legislatures and applied precedents that he would later reshape, Dickson began to adapt the law to keep it in tune with a changing society. Even before the Charter, Dickson stressed the need to treat prisoners, aboriginal people, the injured, the accused, and women fairly. At first, Dickson often wrote in dissent, but many of these dissents were accepted by a majority of a changing Court in the 1980s. By the time he retired, he was revered in the legal community as a judge of exceptional ability. He wrote in a refreshingly lucid style, and he crafted strong and enduring precedents in Canadian law notable for their compassion.