Ernest Fenwick MacIntosh, who was convicted of sexually abusing boys decades ago, has been acquitted of all 17 of the charges against him.

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal ruled Thursday there was too much of a delay in bringing the former Cape Breton businessman to trial.

The allegations against MacIntosh surfaced in 1995 and dated back to the 1970s. By 1995, MacIntosh was living near New Delhi, in India, where he was working as a telecommunications specialist.

An extradition request was not made until 2006. MacIntosh was arrested in April 2007 in India, and extradited to Canada two months later. There were further delays before the trials against him finally began in 2010.

Justice Duncan Beveridge overturned all of the convictions on Thursday, finding in his 62-page decision that MacIntosh's "right to be tried within a reasonable time was infringed."

"Applying the proper principles, and balancing the length of the delay with the explanation for it and the prejudice to the appellant and society’s interest in a trial on the merits, the delay was unreasonable," Beveridge wrote.

Brian Casey, MacIntosh's lawyer, said he was pleased with the decision but that it came at a great price to his client.

"Of course, we're delighted with the acquittals," he said.

"It's too bad that it's taken 4½ years of Mr. MacIntosh's life and his life savings to get here when the matters shouldn't have proceeded in this fashion in the first place."

17 convictions overturned

There had been six complainants against MacIntosh, which resulted in a total of 36 charges. The complainants were divided into groups of three and two separate trials were held.

In July 2010, after his first trial, MacIntosh was found guilty on 13 of 26 charges of indecent assault and gross indecency — almost 15 years after the allegations surfaced.

He was sentenced to four years in jail and given two years' credit for time already spent in custody.

Then in January, after his second trial, MacIntosh was found guilty of another four counts of gross indecency and indecent assault.

He was sentenced to 18 months in jail with no credit for time served.

One of the complainants against MacIntosh told CBC News he couldn't believe the man would walk free.

"They set him free, put him back on the road again to do the same thing. Now it's time that the public needs to get involved. We need to have a rally. We need to do something because the justice system is doing nothing," said the man, whose name is protected by a publication ban.

'This can't be it'

A second complainant said he felt sick when he heard the decision.

"I was sick. I was thinking, 'God this can't be, this can't be it. This can't be it,'" he told CBC News.

"Freedoms and charters, they're orientated for the abusers, not the victim. Something has got to come out of this. This is heartbreaking."

Beveridge's decision said the Crown did not proceed with due diligence in the case.

"While I see no basis to suggest a deliberate decision to delay, the conclusion is evident that the Crown did not proceed with due diligence," he wrote.

"There were lengthy periods of inactivity before and after the influx of additional complainants."

Crown attorney Jennifer MacLellan said she disagreed.

"That's not the position that we advocated as to the interpretation of that period of time," she told CBC News.

"We were arguing in support of the decision by Chief Justice Kennedy in which he laid blame for much of the delay at the feet of Mr. MacIntosh."

The Crown is looking for grounds to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

With files from The Canadian Press