Dawson was educated at the Royal High School of Edinburgh and studied at the School of Law of the Edinburgh University.
He was Solicitor General for Scotland from 1992 until his appointment in 1995 as a Senator of the College of Justice, a judge of the Supreme Courts of Scotland, and held this post until his death in 2007. He lectured at the University of Dundee from 1971 to 1974, and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1973, becoming Queen's Counsel in 1986. Dawson practised as an Advocate Depute from 1983 to 1987, prosecuting criminal cases on behalf of the Lord Advocate, and was counsel to the 1988 Piper Alpha Inquiry.
In 1992, he was appointed Solicitor General for Scotland, the deputy of the Lord Advocate, succeeding Alan Rodger, who was appointed to the superior post. In 1995, Dawson was appointed a Senator of the College of Justice, a judge of Scotland's Supreme Courts with the judicial title "Lord Dawson". He was succeeded as Solicitor General by Donald Mackay, who would only months later become Lord Advocate.
A 2008 investigation by the Sunday Times found Dawson had the second highest rate of having his sentences or convictions overturned on appeal, with thirty successful appeals against sentence and three against conviction in the past five years. The judge with the most successful appeals was former Lord Advocate Lord Hardie.
Member of the Supreme Court Legal Aid Committee, 1980-1983.
Member of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, 1988-1992.
Clubs: Caledonian Club, Edinburgh.
Lord Dawson had an outstanding legal mind, allied to a powerful sense of justice. His thorough understanding of the history and theory of the law was combined with a common sense and pragmatism, and he established his reputation as an incisive and reliable judge.
Dawson was independent of mind and always prepared to back his own judgment, both as an advocate and a judge. He was admired for his humanity, his compassion and his reason, and those who worked alongside him recall an outstanding legal mind, allied to a powerful sense of justice, whose devotion to public life extended far beyond what might legitimately be expected of a man in his position.
Spouse Jennifer Richmond Dawson (née Crombie), 1975. Children: two sons