Lawyers and staff at the Missing Women’s Inquiry are earning more than some of B.C.’s highest paid judges, according to provincial public accounts records.

But inquiry head Wally Oppal, who made $324,267 last year, insists there’s nothing wrong with the rates that he and others are billing.

“My salary is no secret. By order and counsel I’m paid $1,500 dollars a day, and so what that means is I work weekends,” Oppal said.

“I make no apologies for the fact that [the inquiry] will cost around $7 million. There were murders of innocent women.”

Senior commission counsel Art Vertlieb charged the province $483,741, while first-year lawyer Jessica McKeachie – who was hired to do research for the inquiry – has billed $203,134.

“Let me tell you how hard Jessica McKeachie worked,” Oppal said. “She was here Saturday nights, I saw her. She was here Sunday nights. That figure is probably close to two years’ work.”

For comparison, B.C.’s top paid Crown counsel earns just over $206,000, and the province’s top paid judge makes $265,000.

Cameron Ward, the lawyer representing the victims of serial killer Robert Pickton in the inquiry, billed just over $60,000.

Cori Kelly, who represents advocacy groups that were denied legal funding to take part in the inquiry, said she is “absolutely disgusted” by the massive paydays.

“We knew that the inquiry was a sham. We knew that it was something that would line the pockets of the lawyers representing the police and the interests of the police and the government,” Kelly said.

The cost of the inquiry has been a concern for some since the outset, including former B.C. attorney general Barry Penner, who warned in 2011 that the cost of government-funded lawyers could spiral out of control and advocated a “less-legalistic” study process.

Oppal defended the cost, however, by highlighting what the inquiry has accomplished.

“We have given an opportunity to for the families, the real victims who nobody heard from, an opportunity to be heard,” he said.

Attorney General Shirley Bond issued a statement to CTV News saying that the inquiry’s finances were beyond the province’s control.

“Once government… sets the rate for the commissioner, the commission’s operations and finances are not subject to government oversight. The commission determines its own operational needs and budget, including rates of pay and contract terms for staff,” Bond said.

The Braidwood inquiry into the 2007 Tasering death of Robert Dziekanski cost more than $4 million to run, whereas the Pickton inquiry – which isn’t due to release its final report until Oct. 31 – has already surpassed $7 million.

With a report from CTV British Columbia’s Norma Reid