03/27/2015 09:55 EDT | Updated 05/27/2015 05:59 EDT

Changes to Nova Scotia law allow sex assault victims to sue retroactively

HALIFAX - Nova Scotians who have been sexually assaulted can now launch civil lawsuits against their perpetrators regardless of when the offences took place under legislation spurred by men who say they were abused by a notorious pedophile decades ago.

The amendments introduced and passed Friday came after those men, who say they were preyed upon by Ernest Fenwick MacIntosh, lobbied the provincial government, campaigned at the legislature and took out a newspaper ad appealing for their right to sue.

The government first introduced a bill last fall to allow victims of sexual abuse to file lawsuits without being subjected to prescribed time limits. But the legislation only removed the statute of limitations for future abuse victims, a shortcoming the government acknowledged Friday with an apology.

"I can never understand the pain that you have gone through all of these years," Justice Minister Lena Metlege Diab said as two men who say they were abused by MacIntosh attended her announcement.

"We're sorry as a province and I do hope this can be a beginning for you today."

The provisions brought in Friday were not originally included in the Limitation of Actions Act because of a research mistake in her department, Diab said.

Diab came under criticism after she previously argued that it couldn't introduce the amendments it did Friday, saying doing so would've marked a first in Canada. In fact, several provinces including British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario have similar legislation in place.

Her apology for the oversight rang hollow for one of the men, who can't be identified because of a court-ordered publication ban.

"This has never been about money for us," he said. "It's just doing the right thing and the province of Nova Scotia really messed up for 20 years."

MacIntosh was living in India in 1995 when allegations arose that he had sexually abused boys in Cape Breton in the 1970s. The former businessman was extradited to Canada in 2007 and the first of his two trials in Nova Scotia started in 2010.

His convictions were quashed in April 2013 after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled his case took too long to go to trial.

Earlier this month, MacIntosh was sentenced in Nepal to seven years in prison after he was convicted of sexually abusing a nine-year-old boy.

Progressive Conservative justice critic Allan MacMaster, who had also championed the legislative changes, expressed frustration that it took public pressure to get the government to act.

"I find it hard to believe that human beings can't just listen sometimes," he said. "This is a perfect example of it."

Premier Stephen McNeil said a review found that an analysis of legislation across the country was carried out years ago but it wasn't updated.

"It's inexcusable that took place," said McNeil. "That has been dealt with internally. It's a human resources issue within the Department of Justice."

The new legislation also applies to victims of domestic abuse.